Media Diet for December through January
After Instructions for Humans closed and I decided to take a month off to let everything settle, I watched A LOT of what we still call Television, mostly what we still call Box Sets through the corporate streaming services of Netflix and Amazon, with a few via BitTorrent because I can’t stomach giving money to Murdoch (though of course that should change soon).
As such the only opinions of any value I have right now relate to Television Box Sets and I’m about to share them with you.
Season 3 just emerged on Netflix and was devoured this week. A review from when it was on normal telly said it was becoming a bit too familiar “but it doesn’t seem fair to criticise a show for, in essence, being too good at what it does” which is about right. Fargo is never going to be revolutionary viewing - the premise is pretty conservative with danger coming from outside, infecting the innocent naifs of our the rural idyl. Quite the opposite of, say, David Lynch where evil is found beneath the manicured lawns and mannered smiles. But as a playground for character pieces it sings, giving plenty of time and space for the leads to really get to work. I also really appreciated the colour grading, dialling out the blue channel completely in places giving a unique feel that wasn’t beholden to filmic nostalgia. Recommended.
This had been on my hard drive for a while and I finally watched it while Fiona was away for a few days. It’s a very good piece of work with Riz Ahmed further establishing his acting chops and John Turturro gorgeously chewing the scenery with a delightful eczema subplot. But ultimately it left me a little empty, and I think it’s the treatment of the only young female character around who the entire plot rotates but who has no agency, no personality and no depth. Maybe in this sort of story there isn’t a role for young women beyond victims, but then I guess I’m not so interested in this sort of story any more. It all felt a little dated and retrograde. It was interesting to contrast this with how Fargo dealt with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character who is also introduced as a sexy, mysterious, fantasy figure. Suffice to say Fargo does much better.
Over on Amazon, Vikings should be an indulgence, a stop-gap for Game of Thrones. But while GoT has fallen into (highly entertaining) parody, Vikings has maintained a consistent quality over the seasons. Made by the History channel it’s ostensibly based on fact, allowing for those facts being derived from the legends and myths, which gives the writers plenty of leeway to ignore the history books. I’m slightly intrigued to know why certain decisions were made but ultimately it doesn’t matter, and the freedom to bend history to make a broader point goes a long way. I’m also drawn to the casting of Scandinavian actors, and the enforcement of Nordic accents on those who aren’t from there. It adds to the alien feel, which all historical pieces should have. Contrast this with the characters from Saxon England who sound like they’re in a West London cafe.
If Vikings is stop-gap for GoT, then Black Sails is stop-gap for Vikings. Merging legends and historical facts about the Pirates of the Caribbean it tells a good yarn with some smart characters, only a couple of whom bring the eponymous movies to mind (Keira Knightley should sue for pout-infringement.) One nice touch is how the theme of freedom and autonomy for those press-ganged into servitude and slavery is dealt with, and how power and authority plays out in a world on the borders of chaos and anarchy. A really annoying touch is how all the women are bisexual while nearly all the men are 100% straight. Which given these men are stuck on boats for months without women is utter nonsense. One pirate character is revealed to be gay, but it’s depicted in such a chaste, romantic and reserved manner, compared with the soft-core porn whenever the ladies get it on. Black Sails has ended now but I hope the next pirate show with aspirations of accuracy has significantly more acceptance of sodomy.
I’ve never been that bothered by Trek. Never really watched the originals and Next Gen was pretty tedious. I belatedly came to DS9, mainly for the scenes where they take the piss out of Worf, which I then feel bad about because they’re obviously abusing an autistic man, but what the hey. I quite like the new films, mainly because they’re dumb-assed action nonsenses and I find that shit relaxing. This is about the level of my Trek engagement. Discovery, which started last year, changes everything. I’m totally hooked and I’m not exactly sure why. It’s possible that it’s simply a very well made programme, bringing the sort of skill and nuance that’s become the norm on cable shows and applying it to genre space opera. But it’s not all “look at my allegorical take on issues” like Battlestar was. It embraces the big and dumb and absurd, but manages somehow to keep it together.
A Netflix jobby that’s a nice example of this weird place we’re at in television where these investment-rich companies are indulging all kinds of stuff in an attempt to dominate everything. Once one of them gets the monopoly it’ll all be shite again, but let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Godless is written and directed by one man and is about five hours longer than should be economically viable. It meanders. It pauses. It spends whole minutes just staring at nothing. It’s gorgeous. The plot is rudimentary wild-west-meets-progress stuff but the execution is as pure a delight as we’re likely to see. I loved every moment.
Back on the Amazon and this one won a bunch of awards recently which pushed it onto my radar, coupled with a recommendation that it wasn’t all misery and death, like most stuff on the streams. I’m a total sucker for this sort of thing, being Jewish humour of the New York variety. Tony Shalhoub, as the powerless patriarch, is sublime. In fact it’s all sublime.
Managed to miss this until it was all over, which is probably the best way to discover something as you can watch it all at once. Three series of the best programme about masculinity, obsession and dreams, just waiting for you to devour it. Notable in particular for its kindness towards the characters who, in most other shows, would be laughed at or pitied but are here given the space to just be. I particularly respected Mackenzie Crook’s character’s self-awareness of his situation and his inability to do anything about it. He can see outside the bubble of assurance that Toby Jones lives in, but not with the ironic detachment of a lesser writer. There’s something more subtle, more loving going on, a search not for treasure but for self-acceptance and inner peace.
We’ve had this on the hard drive for a while now and binged the last three seasons over Christmas. Fiona got totally hooked while I drifted in and out. I have immense respect for how utterly unlikable Lena Dunham was prepared to make the characters. They’re all awful, terrible people, particularly Marnie and Elijah who are just the worst. Where this works is how the other characters critiquing them are just as bad, if not worse. The scenes where Hannah goes back to college and is just an awful person are raised up by her actions revealing the “good” students to be hypocritical arseholes. Of course, I may be completely misreading Dunham’s intentions here. But as a nihilistic portrayal of the psychological shitstorm of late-capitalist privilege, it’s pretty on the money. Oh, and Adam Driver is amazing, of course.