Tag Archives: Netflix

Pandemic Binge Watching as We are All Still at Home

Back again for more shows we have binged through as we stay home, waiting for the vaccine queue to finally get down to reasonably healthy non-essential workers in their 50s.  It seems like forever-ago that we were watching Tiger King.  ?Anyway, there is still likely time for a lot more TV before we’re going out again.  But on to what we’ve seen.

The tale of Assane Diop, a Frenchman of Senegalese descent who models himself on the Lupin books of Maurice Leblanc, which makes him a one-man Ocean’s Eleven at times, and his search to find evidence to exonerate his father who was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.  Fun, stylish, compelling, and the dub into English over the French was very well done.  A bad dub can be a distraction, but I barely notice this one.

However, there was one huge problem with the series… we only got half of it.  We went in not knowing that we were getting five episodes now and five at some point in the future.  So now we wait.  Merde!

Cynical, biting, and funny by turns, this look at public relations focuses on Robyn as US born PR exec living in London trying to balance her love life, family, friends, addiction, and self with a job that doesn’t want to allow time for any of that.  And then there are the clients, as she spends times spinning stories to bail them out of their own self-made messes.  Probably the most compelling episode takes place with her sitting on a trans-Atlantic flight next to a client who tells her about a problem after take off that she needs to solve before they land.  Quite enjoyed the whole thing.

What?  A lawyer show from David E. Kelly?  Crazy, right?

This time around we have Billy Bob Thorton playing cynical, brunt out, alcoholic lawyer Billy McBride who lives/works out of a motel by the beach near the Santa Monica pier.  When he isn’t in his room/office, he is drinking at the bar next door, only occasionally heading down to the court house to find clients like “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill.  And then a case he doesn’t want to take gets under his skin and we’re off to the races as he comes out of his daily routine to fight against his old partner.  Billy Bob Thorton excels in the part.

There are three seasons, and the first two don’t have much to do with each other, but then we get to the third season where the past comes back on Billy in unexpected ways.  Good, in a strange way, and season 3 involves irrigation rights in the California central valley, which is always an issue when we have a drought… and we’re pretty much permanently in a drought at this point.

My desires for The Expanse at this point are pretty simple.  I want some spaceships, some Earth/Mars/Belter politics, a few dramatic visuals, an existential threat, Amos being Amos, and an elegantly dressed Chrisjen Avasarala swearing at inappropriate moments.  Give me that and I am set.

Which is why season 4 was kind of a let down for me.  We spent most of the season with Holden and his crew on a planet on the far side of the ring, away from our solar system, trying to remake Prometheus.  Or maybe it was Defiance.  I don’t know, but it wasn’t all that satisfying.

Season 5 though was back in the black, with spaceships and Belter plots and and Holden trying to get the band back together and what was hiding under Fred Johnson’s bed this whole time.  Good stuff… only now we have the long wait until season 6.  I hate that part.

Billed as a documentary about Elizabeth Carmichael and her attempt to create a lightweight, fuel efficient car in the 70s, if that was all it was about it wouldn’t have needed four hour long episodes.  I am pretty sure John Oliver could have given us all the relevant facts, made it funny, and still had time to review the new and have two “and now this…” segments without going over his usual 30 minutes.  But this is also the history of a con man with ten kids, trans gender acceptance, and where all those guys selling flowers on the side of the road in Texas came from.  Strange stuff, and oddly illustrated, but after seeing Tucker Carlson’s dad one can at least say that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the asshole tree.

A detective in Japan, his dead brother, a murder in London, a missing family sword, and a bunch of actors that might wife and I kept identifying from other shows from which we knew them.  The whole thing doesn’t quite fit together into a story that I was willing to believe in.  Too many complications that worked themselves out, too many “no person in position x would do that right?” moments, too many people suddenly willing to work against interest.  It was kind of forgettable… proven by the fact that I forgot all about it until Netflix reminded me about it under the “watch it again” header and I suddenly went, “Oh, right, the one with the woman from Boardwalk Empire, the acolyte from The Fifth Element, and the “I’m a Mac” guy!”

That said, we did watch the whole thing.  So there was enough there for that.  And that makes me wonder if I should do a post about the shows where we watched an episode or three and said, “Nope!”

Pandemic Binge Watching and HBO Max

Last month HBO and Roku worked out whatever it is that was keeping me from being able to access the service on my Roku Stick, so I now have access to all the wonder and majesty that is HBO Max.  And it is a bit of a mess.

It is fairly obvious what the plan for HBO Max is in the evolution of HBO overall.  Back in the day, HBO was a service that let you watch a few movies that had recently been in the theaters along with a haphazard selection of older movies.  Then they started producing some original content with things like comedy specials and shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.   With Game of Thrones their original content was clearly the biggest draw for the service.  And now, in the world of the pandemic and theaters being closed, HBO has leveraged the situation to get some films to open on their services at the same time as their theatrical release.

Also, Netflix and Hulu have been doing pretty well with a bunch of old but popular shows, so HBO wanted to jump on that bandwagon as well, which brings us to HBO Max, which attempts to bring all of that together into a single user interface.

As I mentioned, it is a bit of a mess.

That doesn’t mean it is bad.  They have added some features that they were lacking when compared to other services.  You can now have a user profile, something I think Netflix has had for a decade at this point, so if your kid binge watches Sesame Street you don’t have that polluting your recommendations.

You can also skip over ads for other shows or the opening credits or the series summary with a press of a button now.  And these are good things.

But, at its heart, HBO Max is an attempt to have a lot more content without making finding something you want to watch any easier.  This is a problem every service has, so it is a matter of where it stands in the hierarchy of channels we use.  HBO Max does this a bit better than Amazon Prime or Hulu, but not as well as Disney+ and not nearly as well as Netflix.

Which is odd, because HBO Max was clearly trying to emulate Netflix in their own way.  But despite the fact that a lot of the same categories are up at the top of the page when you open the service… just added, popular, continue watching, items from your list… and despite my occasional annoyance at how brazenly eager Netflix is to start rolling video the moment you pause on some title… Netflix just does it better.

Part of this is that Netflix is easier to read from across the room on the couch.  They have titles in big bold print, while somebody at HBO decided that the title card for a show or movie has the name on it and that is good enough, forgetting how often that text can be tiny, in a frilly script, or made otherwise unreadable to older eyes.

And part of this is that HBO Max just doesn’t run very well on the Roku.  It is slow to load and slow to respond to inputs, which is a bad look next to Netflix, which is light and nimble and responsive even as it is more active and throwing video at every turn.  How can Netflix be so smooth with dynamic responses to selections and streaming clips on the fly as you move through a list while HBO Max, which is relatively static, chugs along, responding eventually to your inputs?

But there is also just the simple ability to find something to watch.  Maybe because my Netflix account is now about 20 years old, counting the old disks by mail era, they know what to serve up to me as options.  Maybe their algorithms are more sophisticated.  Maybe they just have better content.  But if we sit down on a Friday night and I pull up Netflix I am generally able to find something for us to watch on which we can both agree.

And, in the end, finding something to watch is the most important thing.  HBO Max promises more movies coming with their theatrical release dates, while Netflix has been telling me they’ll have a new movie every week this year.  We shall see how these two services compare over time.  While we are currently subscribed to both, I have to give the nod to Netflix at the moment.

Pandemic Binge Watching in the New Year

Just because the world is falling apart doesn’t mean we’ve stopped watching TV.  Sometimes we watch more.  Back on the 6th I had the TV on and tuned to CNN… live freaking television… almost all day.  I don’t think I’ve done that since the Gulf War back in ’91.

But aside from insurrectionist farces involving people who probably lack the self reflection to ever achieve the “Are we the baddies?” epiphany they rightfully deserve, we have watch a series or three.

A powerful mixture of the ordinary, the supernatural, and the Jim Crow reality of the US in the 50s, it follows Atticus, an African American veteran of the Korean War, whose father publishes a travel guide akin to the Green Book and whose family history is mixed up in things alleged to have inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s tales or horror.  Based on a book of the same name, it is disturbing, confusing, and compelling by turns, it isn’t done until you get to the final episode.  Oh, and time travel… there is time travel in there too.

There are seasons where I feel like I needed to re-watch the previous season to understand what is going on and there are series where I feel that maybe I should have read the book (or the books in this case) in order to have gotten the most out of them, but here we have a rare combo of both.

We watched the first season when it came out and then, a year later, picked up with the second season only to not really get a grasp of what was really going on.  The basics were there in the “previously” summing up segment, but the “why do I give a shit here?” was sadly lacking.  Lots of stuff goes on in the parallel worlds, the visuals are magnificent, and I could sit and watch stylishly attired Ruth Wilson and her vicious monkey familiar… demon… whatever… all evening, but at the end credits of the final episode of the season I was left feeling a bit… so what?

The other show I wanted to watch on Apple TV.  Inspired by, rather than based on, a book, this is a look into the world of morning television in the US centered on the fictional The Morning Show.  The series opens when the male co-host of the show, played by Steve Carell, has been fired due to allegations of sexual harassment, leaving Jennifer Aniston, whose character had worked side by side with him for years, alone hosting the show.

The show follows who is complicit and who knew what was going on, the network’s attempt to cover things up, and the infighting over who runs the show and whether or not Jennifer Aniston will remain in the host.

It was… okay.  I know it was nominated for a bunch of awards, something I attribute partially to it being about the one thing the industry loves most; itself.  And it has some good performances, with a lot of the supporting actors carrying water for the show.  But the main cast let me down.  Steve Carell comes with a lot of baggage having played so many clueless comedic roles that his lack of self-awareness steers a little too close to that.  Jennifer Aniston might have peaked as Rachel Green in Friends, because her performance feels like we’re revisiting the same character 20 years down the line.  And Reese Witherspoon is unsurprisingly cast as the outspoken southern woman who is a bit of a loose cannon.  Go figure.

Another Netflix series that was getting a lot of buzz a while back, so we were perhaps a bit late to the party.  Though, I say that as somebody who follows Netflix on Twitter and they retweet positive reactions to their own shows, so sometimes I am fooled by that.  But not this time.

Chess, drugs, orphans, Soviets, and the 50s and 60s all based on a novel from 1983, this wrapped up into a surprisingly compelling package.  We would have burned through this over a weekend if our daughter hadn’t been home from school and watching it with us, and she has a two episode limit when it comes to watching TV in the evening.  I quite enjoyed the whole thing, even though the rules of television plot did dictate the ending somewhat.

Scandal, mild intrigue, and ever so many romantic complications in Georgian period piece.  The London season is upon us and grand balls and matchmaking the order of the day.  But the mysterious Lady Whistledown has been publishing a fliers that dish the dirt on seemingly everybody and many are keen to find out who she is, including the Queen.  It doesn’t have the gravity of, say, Dangerous Liaisons, and feels a bit stretched over eight episodes, but it isn’t bad.  My wife seemed to enjoy it immensely.

There are two tidbits I want to bring up.  First, Nicola Coughlan, who plays the 16 year old Penelope Featherington, and was also the teen Clare Devlin in Derry Girls, is in her freakin’ 30s.  That is beyond Beverly Hills 90210 level of playing a character younger than yourself, and she nails it.  I only noted her age on reading up about her.  She is amazingly youthful.

Second, as with The Great, which I wrote about previously, the cast is multi-ethnic rather than just being pasty white Brits.  That’s fine.  It isn’t like we haven’t heard about Hamilton around here, so roll with it.  And nobody within the show mentions it, so it isn’t a thing… until one short scene mid-season when Lady Danbury mentions to the Duke of Hastings, who are both played by black actors, that he needs to hold up his end of things because they’re only in the heights of society because George III married the black Queen Charlotte, introducing a measure of racial equality and tolerance.

At that point I figured that the racial makeup of the cast was going to become a thing… and then it was never mentioned again.  If you’re not going to do something with a revelation like that, just don’t bring it up.  I imagine somebody management got nervous and felt the need to quickly explain the racial makeup of the cast.  Maybe they should go see Hamilton.

Still, fun and extravagant and fun and if you listen closely to the music you might find you’re not getting what one might expect.

Something old.  I was bemoaning my inability to find The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on any streaming service when I summed up some of our binge watching, and on my subsequent mental list of shows I would want to go through again was The Sandbaggers, another one of the shows from the UK that found its way to the US in the 80s via public television.

Having been recorded/produced on standard definition video tape, which was the standard of the time, rather than 35mm film like some earlier television, has no doubt held it back from the transition for formats beyond DVD.  (Hogan’s Heroes for example, was all on film, which was why it made it to HD early and why you can find the whole series on Blu-Ray today.)  As such, I had little hope of finding it anywhere save for some episodes somebody dumped onto YouTube.

On a whim I used Roku’s search, which goes through all the services they support, and I found it on a service called Tubi, which was purchased by Fox last year, which puts it in bed with Hulu and Disney+ at this point.  You don’t have to subscribe, but you do have to watch commercials.  There is always a price.

But for The Sandbaggers and its focus bureaucracy and policy fights over Bond-like action I’ll put up with a few commercials.  And at least they show it in 4:3 aspect ratio rather than trying to stretch it awkwardly in order to fill up your HD screen.

Reflections on a Year of Binge Watching

I can be a bit of a luddite when it comes to television.  There are times when I miss the warmth of the cathode ray tube and the warmth of its colors… and its ability to render black and white shows and movies correctly.  I am certainly in no hurry most days to jump on whatever the latest trend is.

On the other hand, I do eventually catch up and have been at times in the vanguard.  We had a DVR from ReplayTV back before Tivo came and went as a generic term for the device.  With streaming channels we were able to start off with Netflix and Amazon on our PlayStation 3 when they launched.

But a combination of events pushed us into streaming as the default television mode at our house, and the first of those events was Baby Yoda.  Or Grogu, as we now know his name.

My wife wanted to watch The Madalorian, which was only available on the newly launched Disney+ service.  However, as the PS3 was days from going out of support Disney declined to build an app for it, so we needed another device.  I got a recommendation from a friend who works over at Roku and we picked up one of their Roku Stick devices in order to stream.

Then, or course, came the pandemic.  That meant we were home a lot more watching TV.  But sports were cancelled… my wife watches ice hockey… so we were looking for something to fill the void on that front.

And then there was Comcast/XFinity, which implemented a new compression algorithm which makes their HD channels look as grainy and dull as standard definition.  In comparison content streamed through the Roku look sharp and clear.

So from some point in February forward we have pretty much watched only stream on demand video content.  The only ads we have seen are the previews for other titles that sometimes get padded into the front end of shows on demand.  We have watched when we wanted to, often as many episodes in a row as we have wanted to, all from the comfort of our couch.

Based on that, I have the following thoughts.

  • No commercials is pretty nice

I would have underestimated this, but then we went to watch 60 Minutes live on cable to see the presidential candidate interviews and the commercials were interminable.  Even when we record things on the DVR I have to fast forward and skip back to get past them… and the cable channels are wise to this and have deliberately started injecting quick scenes from the show your watching into the middle of five minute commercial blocks to make you stop and check to see if you’ve missed something.  Not dealing with that at all… and not watching any commercials… has changed my tolerance level for them.

  • I still won’t buy pay-per-View

I like a service where you pay a monthly fee and can watch all you want from their selection.  And since that is readily available in the form of Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and even HBO, the value proposition of spending $6-$20 on a single showing of show or a movie when there are so many other options is a non-starter for me.  If it is special enough that I need to see it now, I’ll go see it in the theater… back when they re-open.  And the idea of “owning” digital content that the provider can take away from you later is ludicrous.  Comcast has literally screwed me on that with the one thing I bought from them.

  • There are too damn many streaming services

I mean, we knew this already.  But when you go to the Roku channel store and see the multitude of services available, you start to get a feeling of how big the eventual culling will be.  And even the big channels are eyeing some consolidation.  Hulu has had all of the FX stuff folded into it and it feels like Hulu and Disney+ might eventually co-join.

  • Finding things is hard

The most difficult part of coming to the end of a show is that you now how to find something new to watch.  My wife and I spend time comparing notes with friends and reading online articles about the ten best things to watch on this service or that.  And it is a multi layer problem.  The UI on any given service is quickly overloaded by too much choice.  There are multiple services and some content swaps between them.  And when you can find things, then figuring out what is worth the effort and investment can lead to decision paralysis.

  • I am torn on weekly versus all at once content

I complained in one of my binge watching posts about services that still dole out episodes once a week rather than just giving us the whole series to consume at once, the way Netflix does.  But for a popular show, where everybody watches on the same day lest they be beset by spoilers, or when everybody in our house is invested in the show, the once a week schedule still works out and becomes a point in time when we all get together on the couch.

  • We have been biased towards shows versus movies

For whatever reason our pandemic binge watching has been heavily biased towards series.  When we sit down in the evening a two hour movie is a commitment, but a show that is 22-60 minutes per episode is something you can take in pieces.  The irony here is that we almost inevitably watch two hours or more when we settle in after dinner, but we have this idea that a movie is too much.  Well, that and movie selection can be odd.  There is still a very old school, HBO monthly selection situation going on where movies come and go and are on this service then that for short stints.  So even finding a movie you want to watch on a service to which you are currently subscribed can be even more of a chore than finding shows.

  • I could cut the cord were it not for sports

Seriously, I could turn my back on the cable company… well, except for the fact that they are also the internet company.  But my wife likes to watch hockey and texts back and forth with her pals about the game and, while I can get the games on a stream, they are inevitably 30-60 seconds behind what is on cable and my wife hates hearing that one side or the other has score before it happens on our screen.

  • It really sucks when the internet goes down

The cable company is also the internet company… that is our only high speed internet option and we live in the middle of Silicon Fucking Valley… so when they go down or are doing maintenance, you get a quick and hard accounting of just how much you depend on that pipe for your entertainment.

  • It does not replace the theater experience

I know a bunch of people who are not at all sad that movie theaters are in trouble and that many may not open back up when the pandemic passes.  I still value the theater experience though, and miss it.  Seeing something on the big screen, like a James Bond or a Star Wars film, is not something that can be at all replicated in our living room, no matter how big of a TV we purchase.  Of course, most everything I would have gone to see on the big screen has been delayed due to the pandemic, so if there are theaters this summer I hope to return.

  • I still cannot watch exactly what I want on demand

I wrote a few years back that the most cost effective way to watch exactly what you want is to get an old fashioned, disks through the mail, Netflix subscription and get things that way.  That remains true today.  I saw that Geoffrey Palmer had passed away and wondered if I could watch some of the early things he was in, like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

Nope.  Not available.  I could get it on DVD from Netflix through the mail, but even the niche British TV streaming services like BritBox, GranadaVision, BoB, and Acorn, don’t have it.  There isn’t even a pay per view option, not that I would use it.

Others on this topic:

Pandemic Binge Watching with More New Seasons

And we’re back with more TV that we have watched while the pandemic has kept us home… not that we would have gone out all that much, but we used to go out to dinner and a movie one in a while.  Anyway, some new seasons from older shows and some first seasons from new shows to talk about.

The Boys Season 2- Amazon Prime

I loved season one of this, with the super heroes as real people run by a corporation focused on profit and image and putting out the next film starring their heroes.  Heroes are not uncommon, and the prime group is The Seven, seven heroes who represent the top of the brand.  It is a gritty world where those seven all have their own personality issues and problems with the job, the public, and the company itself, while the company will do anything to protect their image.

I won’t spoil season one with too much detail, but it builds the world where a group led by Carl Urban… The Boys of the title… are trying to expose the whole thing for what it is.  And then, in season two, they have to kind of run with the big build up behind them and… it kind of falls a bit flat.

The problem is, after the first season, our ability to be shocked that, say, a super hero is a legit Nazi, has been expended.  We know they and the company are bad, we’re now just haggling over how bad.  I think the writers/producers knew this, because they dialed up the sex/violence/gore meter a few notches over season one, but that doesn’t really offset the fact that we get the situation already.  Meanwhile, The Deep joining a cult was a bit of a drag on the plot.

Still, the second season isn’t bad, and I’ll watch the third season to continue the crazy, frenetic soap opera that the show can be, but it is now hard for them to shock the audience after the first season.

The Mandalorian Season 2 – Disney+

Okay, I know, we’re not even done with the full season yet, but after episode 5 I am ready to pass judgement.  This is the way.

Unlike The Boys above, season one only laid the groundwork for the show.  There is a lot more to explore and discover in the post-Endor galaxy far, far away.  The season starts a little slow, but the show has already decided it moves only at a walking pace as we go from adventure to adventure.  We’re happy with that at our house as long as the quips are good and baby Yoda is cared for.  But then, in episode five, things get real and the connection to the rest of the Star Wars universe is well and truly establish.  And then episode six comes along and doubles down! This is the show that Star Wars fans deserve.   I don’t want to spoil it, but it is pretty cool.

Anyway, we’ll keep subscribing to Disney+ so long as they keep making this show.  I might also have to go back and watch Star Wars: Rebels while we’re subscribed.

The Crown Season 4 – Netflix

There was word that the royals were not fully happy with how they were portrayed in season 4, to which I respond with, “Are you serious? This monarchy porn isn’t fawning enough for you?  Try making your own!  Oh, right, you did that in season 3, didn’t you?  And it sucked, didn’t it?”

The lot of them should be grateful for the casting alone.  It wouldn’t take much for this to have turned into a live action Spitting Image.

That said, season four was kind of a transition for us, as we moved from “things I read about or knew from history” into things we remember from the news coverage at the time.  My wife got up at 3am to watch Charles and Diana get married.

The time frame is essentially the Margaret Thatcher era, who is portrayed by Gillian Anderson with a hard shell of hair and a back brace to keep her posture as rigid as possible. (That last bit is conjecture on my part.)  She looks and sounds contrived, but so did Thatcher at the time, so spot on I guess.  She is shown in the mix of her achievements.  She is a heartless conservative who could care less about apartheid or the poor.  But she is also of middle class origins, believes in her cause, and works very hard relative to the indolent royal family (and pretty much everybody around her), whom I honestly expected to reprise the Maggie Smith line, “What is a ‘week end’?” when the Thatcher’s are invited for dinner.  They disdain her and her middle class ways.

(And word is that conservatives in the UK want the show conspicuously labeled as a “work of fiction” because they too are not fully happy, this time with how Maggie was portrayed.  I suppose one could allow that many of them are experts on fiction.  Just look at the Brexit campaign.)

Much of the season is the poor royals, trapped in their roles and longing to be free… so long as they can keep their titles, wealth, and privileges.  The Queen, Anne, and Margaret are probably the most sympathetically played this season.

Charles and Diana make up much of the season.  Charles is probably the most likely to be aggrieved by his portrayal as they push his slouch and mannerisms to exaggeration, and he comes off immature, petty, self-absorbed, and uninterested in much beyond polo and Camilla.

Diana is a bit of a mystery.  Being from a similar background, she fits in with the royals initially.  She is one of them and her first weekend with the royals juxtaposes the Thatcher weekend.  But after the wedding that seems to stop.  She is lonely and the fairy tale is a sham, so she starts to find ways to fill her own needs even as she starts to outshine Charles in the public eye.

Anyway, it was all charming and well done and I await season five when the Queen orders the SAS to kill wayward Diana… or however they’re going to play that.  Didn’t we have a whole movie about the aftermath from the same person?

Roadkill Season 1- PBS via the UK

I am pretty sure I read somewhere that the stated objective of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater is to get us to fawn endlessly like stricken colonials over all things British.  And it seems to be a viable plan, since it has kept going as a show over here since the early 70s.

This time we’re back with Hugh Laurie whom I think I first saw when Masterpiece brought over Jeeves and Wooster back in the 80s, long before he showed up in House which, when I first saw it, made me ask, “Why is he speaking with that horrible parody of an American accent?”  But I gather I was in a minority on that front.

Anyway, we like him around our house, so we decided to watch this when it came up and… it is kind of hard to peg.  We have him as Peter, a British politician in some political hot water who is part of the cabinet and everything seems to be working against him, including the Prime Minister, and then things just sort of work out in the end for him.  While the journey had its interesting points, it is sort of like House of Cards... original or remake, take your pick, right down to a dead female investigative reporter… with all the hard edges sanded off.

Is it a commentary on ruling class privilege, the nature of politics, how some people can get away with anything and still succeed?  And what does that title mean?  And what was going on with the Prime Minister’s right arm?  I really don’t have any answers.  I realize everything doesn’t have to have a universal message at the end, but you want something to hang your hat on.

Finally, while I liked Hugh Laurie in it, this did feel like more of a Hugh Grant role, where just a bit more charm would have had it all make some sense… maybe… but I guess he was busy using that charm to hide malice in The Undoing.

Away Season 1 – Netflix

This follows an international crew on the first manned mission to Mars.  There is the brash American who is leading the mission, because the Americans are clearly paying most of the bills for this, the salty Russian who has more time in space and feels he should be leading, the handsome Indian Air Force Group Commander who is also second in command, the unsmiling Chinese chemist there to represent the party, and the Brit botanist who was probably as surprised as the rest of us that the UK was even included.  But he makes up the majority who force English to be the language for the mission.

This is less science fiction and more space soap opera.  There are some science bits and problems to overcome, but the show is mostly focused on the personal strengths and weaknesses of the crew and how they cope together locked in a metal cylinder headed towards Mars.  Not a bad show, but it was cancelled after the one season, so you can imagine this as the prequel to some more exciting movie like The Martian or  Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Treadstone Season 1 – Hulu

Time to try and capture some more of that Jason Bourne magic, so Project Treadstone has been shaken back to life as we discover there are all sorts of other sleepers like Bourne out there, called “cicadas,” and somebody is waking them up for some sinister purpose.

On the upside, the show is well acted and has excellent production values.  USA, where it was original aired, and the crew that created the show can be proud of that.

The downside is that it the plot itself is a confused mess that has at least three major plot lines that never quite run together, including a diversion back to 1973 and the Soviet program that inspired the Americans to create Treadstone.  So you get tense situations and some very good action, but you’re left wondering how that connects with the guy back in the US and the woman in Korea and the woman in Russia on the farm with the missile that the woman in London was talking about and what that part from the 70s added to anything.

So the show was cancelled, though I am sure the real reason why it got shut down wasn’t its complexity, but its failure to adhere to the Robert Ludlum rule: Three Word Titles.

Pandemic Binge Watching and Some More Shows

The pandemic is still here… and it has been getting worse rather than better of late… so we’re still spending a lot of time at home in front of the TV consuming huge servings of streamed shows.  You can look at the Binge Watching tag to see this and other posts on the topic.

We started watching this because it had a bit of the same vibe in the ads as Succession, the HBO series that we both enjoyed.

It features the ongoing struggle between the CEO of an investment firm, played by Damien Lewis, and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, played by Paul Giamatti.

Unlike Succession, which was about a rich and powerful family being horrible to each other, and fully deserving it most of the time, Billions tends to be more about the rich (Lewis) and powerful (Giamatti) abusing their power for their own agendas, which is less fun, being closer to the reality where the everyday person just gets crushed if they get in the way.

Also, the show doesn’t really go anywhere.  There are four and a half seasons available on Showtime and when we got to the end of season four I commented to my wife that after 48 episodes everything was pretty much back where it started.  A lot of details changed, but the essential conflict remained practically as it began.

The redeeming grace of the show is the supporting cast, who are often more fun an interesting than either of the two primary characters.

A science fiction series originally aired on Starz, the premise is that in the late 80s in Berlin some scientists broke through a barrier and discovered a parallel, identical Earth.  Or maybe they created it, as everything was exactly the same there.  And everybody has a double on the other side that is an exact copy of them.  But then the two worlds began to diverge.

30 years down the road, the two worlds are very different, with research and technology having progressed differently.  The two worlds maintain embassies with each other and negotiate trades of information, but the relationship is tense.  Both sides distrust the other and spy while trying to keep their own secrets.  The whole thing has been kept under wraps from the general public and is run by a group referred to only as “Management.”

The show only ran for two seasons, which I suspect may have been due to a lack of “stars” to bring in an audience.  I mean, I like J. K. Simmons a lot, but stars maybe don’t do insurance commercials.  Or maybe the slow pace did it in.

But the two season thing turned out to be a bit of a benefit.  I think they knew going into the second season that they would have to wrap it up, so they did.  The first season brings you into the conflict between the two worlds and sets a plot in motion.  The second season resolved the plot, answers a bunch of questions, and tidies things up at the end, making it a 20 part story.  And it is all kind of fun because a lot of the actors get to play two versions of themselves.

Ewan McGregor is back with his childhood pal Charley Boorman for another motorcycle adventure.  It has been a long time since they did Long War Round and Long Way Down, but the two are back again for another adventure, and one I figured they would do eventually.

Sort of.

I figured Alaska to Tierra del Fuego would be a natural.  However, that is another “down” journey, so they decided to start in Tierra del Fuego and go north, thus the title.

The big twist, besides everybody being older, grayer, and less spry, is that they decided to do the ride on electric motorcycles.  They got two prototype electric motorcycles from Harley Davidson for the run.  And, to go with them, were two prototype electric trucks from Rivian. (An old friend works for them, so I’ll have to ask if he got to meet Obi-wan.)

That is kind of an interesting twist, but it also meant that the first three episodes were largely focused on battery life charging time, and whether or not they have the right plug adapter.  The vehicles all run down at some point, but they have a van and a generator truck on call at times.

After that it settles down into the usual routine from the earlier shows, where they alternate between cool local sights and culture and figuring out how they are going to overcome some obstacle or make it in time for a ferry.

Also, they don’t go all the way to Alaska, settling on LA to end the trip, which is where Ewan lives.  Driving up Interstate 5 to Canada and then the ALCAN Highway to Alaska is probably less exotic than they wanted.

Basically, if you like the first two shows, this is a bit more of the same.

I didn’t have any background on this one, but it had John Cusack in it, so we gave it a watch. Starting off it felt very much like a comic book adaptation, with the over the top graphic violence and crazy conspiracy theories… oh, and it revolves around a pair of comic books which a group of “enthusiasts” believe foretold and can foretell disease outbreaks in current times.

But it is actually a remake of a British show of the same name from seven years back.  I suppose the source material doesn’t matter, but it felt like what it felt like.

Anyway, conspiracies are true, diseases are planned, and an evil corporation has an evil plan to remake the world in a way that at least two Bond villains would approve.  The whole disease and vaccine and media influence aspect of it was very on the nose in 2020 I guess, but after a crazy and sometimes shocking start, the whole thing felt a little flat by the end.  It was only eight episodes, but it was no Umbrella Academy.

In the middle of the pandemic and the election and all of the rather tense shows we’ve been watching, it was nice of Netflix to import four seasons of silly sitcom for us.

The show feels straight from 70s/80s mold of family sitcoms.  It features the Kim family and centers around the convenience store they run.  The parents immigrated from Korea, but their two kids have grown up in Toronto and are much more Canadian than Korean in ways the second generation often are as part of the immigrant experience.

Light, airy, and easily digested in 22 minute doses, we ran through all four seasons pretty quickly.  It isn’t Derry Girls hilarious, but it is pretty funny.  You can get wrapped up in whether or not the ethnic humor aspect of it should be a thing, but at its core it is a family sitcom with many of the same setups as sitcoms from bygone days.

Also Mr. Kim, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, got his own sneak attack, appearing in last week’s episode of The Mandalorian.

Honest Trailers Looks at Streaming Services

I just want to point out that I wrote my two posts about streaming services, yesterday’s and the previous one, before this video came out.

That said, the profusion of streaming services and their popularity now during the pandemic makes it a timely topic, and the Screen Junkies teams looks into services beyond what I have explored so far.

 

Of course, since I just wrote about some of those services, it is interesting to see where my opinion aligns or diverges from theirs.  Also, I forgot that Netflix was no longer the place to watch Friends as HBO paid a bunch of money to have it on HBO Max.  I might know that if I could access HBO Max rather than whatever HBO service I’m allowed to have on the Roku.

Still, I feel solid with my own assessments.

And even Honest Trailers cannot plumb the full depth of channels out there.  My wife keeps asking me at bed time, when the lights are out and I have no electronics handy, if we can get Acorn or Britbox or some other oddball channel because she saw an ad for a show that we might want to watch and it is on that particular service.  And don’t get me started on trying to explain how the PBS app works.

If you are really hot on this topic, then you will probably enjoy the Honest Trailers Commentary video that goes along with the above, where they run through the trailer and talk about why they said what they did and expand upon their opinions.  I enjoyed it.

Pandemic Binge Watching and the Big Three Channels

Let me just get out the obligatory “TV was a lot different when I was young” before we move on.  I tell my daughter about the days before DVRs or VCRs, when you had to be there and ready to watch at a specific time in order to see a show or movie.  A whole weekly magazine was devoted to the TV schedule, which was kind of amazing logistically because the channels were different in every major media market.  The LA TV Guide was useless in Chicago or New York.

And don’t even get me started on the pre-cable days and fiddling with an antenna to get the TV signal.  And I am just old enough to remember pre-solid state TVs, where you had to turn them on and allow a couple of minutes for them to warm up before a clear picture would resolve itself on the screen.  Or a fuzzy picture, if the antenna wasn’t just right.  It was a different time.

Today we have a Roku Stick that juts out from the side of our 46″ LCD TV.  I bought that back in December because there was demand in our house for the Disney+ channel and the PlayStation 3, our streaming device up until that moment, was just seconds from being completely out of support, so no new apps were being made for it.  And, when I looked at it a couple month later, all the old apps were dead too.  So it was just in time.

And, as the pandemic has gone on, we have spent more and more time streaming content over the Roku and very little time watching traditional commercial television.  I’d cancel the cable TV service, but Comcast would raise my monthly charge to just have internet.  So we just leave it there, idle, though I may go in and trim some features, like the extra we pay for HD channels.  The Comcast Xfinity HD compression algorithm was changed a couple years back and what you get now looks pretty bad.  If it even qualified as 720p I’d be surprised.  Maybe sports will come back and we’ll want to watch something like that.

Anyway, this will be a few posts running down of the channels in order of length and depth of investment in each, and I will start with the big three staples of our house currently.

HBO, or Home Box Office back in the day, is probably the first premium channel I ever ran into.  Our friend Gary had a bootleg HBO receiver on their antenna mast back in the day when it was broadcast via line-of-sight transmission from Mount Umunhum into the valley.  It was just movies back then, and the occasional filler 30 minutes of Video Jukebox, which might have pre-dated MTV.

I have subscribed to HBO as part of cable or satellite or streaming a number of times over the years, and I always end up cancelling it after a while.  They never have many movies that interest me, and for a long time they only had a few shows, and none of this was on demand.  But that has changed.

Upside:

Usually has a couple of recent release movies we might want to watch.

Has a deep field of good TV series that they have produced on which to binge like The Wire, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Succession, Generation Kill, and a few others.  I could watch the first two seasons of The Wire on repeat.

Downside:

Priced at a premium tier.

Like a lot of movie channels, there are a bunch of movies you’ll skip right past because you’ve seen them or know you’ll never watch them.  Oh, and they come and go monthly, so you have to keep an eye on that.

Has some series that are decent but which got cancelled quickly, so you have a few episodes and a longing for more.

The UI of the app is not very sophisticated, though I will admit that the UI of none of the streaming apps are ideal.  We are once again up against the limitations of screen real estate and exactly how big things need to be to be able to see/read them from the couch.  But HBO, for all its prestige of being one of the elder services, is behind the pack when it comes to features, at least when compared to the two services below.

Has clung to the old school “episode every week” format for new show content.  This works for topical shows, like Last Week Tonight, and worked during Game of Thrones, when everybody was talking about that at the water cooler on Monday, but that was an exception, not the rule.  Most of the time it feels like they drag shows out week by week because they have nothing else new coming and just want to keep you subscribed.  Our general house rule is to let a series get at least six episodes in so we can watch them in pairs, though it is better still if we just wait until the season is over and watch at our own pace.

I also remain confused as to their branding.  I have HBO Now, or I did, but there is now HBO Max, which I cannot have because they are in a fight with Roku, though I can get HBO Max if I cancel HBO Now and subscribe to HBO via Hulu.  Or something like that.  I am not sure what I am missing by not having HBO Max.  Also, wasn’t there HBO Go for a while?

Current Status: Still subscribed.  Waiting for Lovecraft County to get further along.

Our original stop for binge watching, back when Netflix used to just send disks through the mail.  We burned through seasons of the show 24 three disks at a time.  With no commercials and using the chapter advance to get past the “previously” and the credits, each hour long episode boiled down to under 30 minutes, so we would watch a disk a night.

Eventually Netflix managed to get to the “net” part of its name and started streaming back before that was much of a thing.

Anyway, fast forward to today where Netflix is your prime location for streaming old episodes of Friends, a show we only used to watch because it was adjacent to Seinfeld at one point and the once place where you can watch Tiger King.

Upside:

Overall, lots of stuff available.

Lots of new and original content showing up all the time.  When they drop a new series, it is all episodes on the table, ready to binge.  And they have hit the mark multiple times with shows like Stranger Things and Tiger King.

Top of the class when it comes to features like “skip the ‘previously’ segment” at the start of a series show and “skip credits” so you can get straight into the content.

Tries really hard to flag content you might like based on your viewing, and isn’t that bad at it.  And it allows you to make profiles so when your daughter binges anime on her profile you don’t end up with the weeabo selection on your own recommendations.

Downside:

Has, over time, dramatically decreased the amount of third party content they have licensed.  There are still some good third party items in the mix, and of course Friends, but they are more about their own stuff these days.

A lot of their own content isn’t that great.  Some of it is okay.  I was good with a pass through once on things that otherwise got mixed reviews, but it can be really hit and miss.  A bunch of it is foreign television that has been dubbed in English and branded as “Netflix Original” and dumped into the listings.  Some dubbed stuff is okay, though a dubbed show really has to have a strong underlying plot for that not to become a distraction.

Really wants stuff playing on your screen.  The only service where I will leave something selected, walk away to do something, and come back to find myself starting episode three already.  You can tone that down some in the settings, but they don’t make it easy.

Current Status: Still subscribed, waiting for the next bit of binge fodder to drop while I get through Parks & Recreation.

Amazon Prime is the streaming service we sort of backed into because we had Amazon Prime for free delivery and suddenly it included a video service.

Upside:

Has content for Prime members, which occasionally has a movie I want to watch when I want to watch it.  I caught The Battle of Britain the other day.

Continues to ramp up some decent original content like The Man in the High Castle, The Boys, and Hanna.  If you’re going to dub something, Comrade Detective is how you do it.

Has caught up to Netflix on the “skip this” features without trying to start playing video at you every time you pause the cursor for a moment.  Also, just added profiles.

Can subscribe to a variety of other services like Showtime or Starz in their interface.  Also has a huge library of pay per view titles in its catalog.

Downside:

Not a lot of selection when compared to Netflix when you consider the price differential.  But maybe the free shipping takes a bite out of the content options.

Not as easy to navigate as Netflix.  Not that Netflix is great, but on Prime everything is smaller and less intrusive and feels like they are not trying as hard.  Prime also lists out each season of a show as its own entry, which feels like they are trying to look like they have more content than they actually do.

Searching for titles will lead you to a lot of things that are pay per view.  This sets it apart from the other two where everything you find on the service you can watch without additional payment.

The last time I tried a pay per view movie I had to get up from the TV and go into my office to order it on my computer before I could watch it on the TV.  I guess that keeps down the accidental purchases.

Some spotty or indifferent shows.  Also clings to the “one episode a week” idea of content deliver, except when it gets impatient and suddenly releases half a season, the doles out the rest more slowly.

Status: Still subscribed for free shipping, Twitch games, and other stuff, while finishing up Counterpart and waiting for all the episodes of The Boys season two to become available.

Next time I’ll look at Hulu, Disney+, and Starz.

A Return to Physical Netflix

For a while I had a post bubbling up in the back of my brain, a post about how, despite all the money I pay every month for cable and HBO and Netflix and Amazon Prime, if I want to watch a movie of any recent vintage the odds are my only option when it comes to streaming is to pay another $6-15 to watch it via pay per view.

If I was serious about just watching movies I could chuck all of those services, take the money down to Target every Tuesday, and just buy every new release on disk and probably end up spending less than I do now.

Of course, we don’t just watch movies at our house.  We watch shows produced on all of those services plus sports plus the news plus… hrmm… mostly re-runs of Big Bang Theory, which appears to be available on some channel on cable 24/7 so simply turning on the TV and hopping to a channel at random is likely to come up with an episode.

But I still want to watch reasonably recent movies when I want to and not for whatever long/short time period one of those services might deign to show it to me.  (There is also the issue with actually finding the movies.  When I use the Comcast search with “free to me,” “HD,” and “English” as search parameters I still end up with over 1,500 choices on a list I can see 9 at a time that won’t sort by “new shit I haven’t watched yet.”)

So my mind has been turning to old school Netflix, the disks in the mail version that we used to use regularly last decade.

I guess, technically, it is DVD.com now.

A Netflix Company

However it is still linked to the Netflix site and my account for the streaming service is also the account for that, so I’m still calling it Netflix.

Anyway, this was how we used to regularly watch recently released movies, not to mention whole TV series.  We could burn through a whole season of 24 muy pronto thanks to chapter setup.  An episode was barely past 40 minutes sans commercials to start with, and when you could chapter skip past “previously on 24…” and the end credits, the whole thing dropped under 30 minutes.  You could get stuck into the hilarity of that show pretty quickly.

My brother-in-law, whose motivations in life beyond living and dying with the Green Bay Packers every NFL season remain a mystery to me, decided to give my wife a $30 gift card to Netflix for Christmas.

It seemed odd.  I mean, we subscribe to the streaming service, so it wouldn’t go to waste or anything, but I just wonder how that sprang to mind.

So in the post-Holiday clean-up I ended up with the gift card sitting on my desk, so I went to Netflix and decided to use it to reactivate the physical disk service.  Going for the two-disks-at-a-time option (I guess three is no longer an option) and Blu-Ray it looked like $30 would cover two months of service.

But I got a third month free.  It has been so long since we had disk delivery that I was eligible for 30 days free.  My old, overloaded queue was gone.  That was probably a good thing however.  So I went to the New Releases section and loaded up on new releases and Netflix started sending disks our way.

One of the good things about Netflix is that we’re very close to one of their distribution centers… and the HQ, which I pass every day… so if I drop a disk return in the mail on Monday we have the replacement on Wednesday.

So we will be on a recent movie binge for a while.  The first on the list was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was visually stunning… I wish we had seen it on the big screen… but the characters were dull, the acting flat, and the plot uninspired, so it really only had graphics and Luc Besson weirdness going for it.  Worth a watch for the latter alone if you’re into it, but it was no Fifth Element.

We will see how long our dalliance with physical Netflix lasts.  I have fond memories of new disks in the mail and quick turn around and all that.  But I also know that from time to time our house would become a remote disk storage facility when we other things kept us from sitting down to watch the items we had waiting.  If it goes well I will be tempted to turn off HBO in favor of disks, if only because the final installment of Game of Thrones is now out in 2019.

Next up is War for the Planet of the Apes and the first season of the Starz series Outlander… so I guess it isn’t all movies.

Also, since we’re on about Netflix, we also watched Bright.  I liked it. But I was also a big fan of Alien Nation back in the day, and it had enough of that vibe to hook me.  I was certainly fine with the “screw any back story, just take it as is and run with it!” plan.  I like to figure things out as we go along and don’t need to be spoon fed everything, so appreciated that aspect of it.  However, I seem to be in a minority on that front.  The reviews are bad, often citing missing details, but Netflix has re-upped for a sequel.  I’m not sure it was that good, but Netflix needs content.

Winter is Coming… And it is About Time!

Oh, Netflix.  I have had the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones saved in my queue since it was announced.

And finally it arrived.

Granted, I gave up on reading the series at the fourth book, “A Feast for Crows,” because it became clear that the the crows were likely feasting on yet another popular point of view character that was destined to die, along with the remains of my patience with the story.

Seriously, I am pretty sure George R. R. Martin has a Post-It note on his desk reminding him that any point of view character who is interesting, not a sailor, and over a certain height, must die.

Yes, interesting is a relative term.  You might find the tale of Daenerys Targaryen very interesting.  After three books of her wandering around, I just want somebody to wake me up when she actually does something on the same continent as every other POV character in the book.  Daenerys Storm Born?  More like Daenerys Storm Boring!

And don’t even get me started on the Greyjoys.  They should change their house motto to “We Do Not Suck,” and then trying living up to it.  That is what killed “A Feast for Crows” for me, arriving back on the Iron Islands with another freakin’ Greyjoy as a POV character.

Okay, let me take a deep breath here.  Don’t get all worked up defending the series, it probably isn’t worth the effort.

And I will say that I liked the first book very much, back when the story was fresh, not quite as complicated, and the POV characters had only just started to get killed off.  And I had heard good things about the HBO adaptation, so have been keen to see it.

Not so keen that I would, you know, go out and buy it or anything, but still keen.

So I put it at the top of my Netflix and waited.

Weeks went by and it sat there at the top of my queue with “Very Long Wait” written next to it while Netflix fed me videos from further down my queue.  I didn’t get to the point of immediately returning videos just to see if I could get lucky, but the thought did cross my mind.

Finally though, my number came up and I got an email letting me though that winter, though much delayed, was finally coming.

It arrived and we began watching that night.

The first disappointment was that there were only two episodes on the first disk.  That would last us one night.  One of the strange mysteries of our household is that on a weekday night, a two hour movie after dinner seems like too much of a commitment, but two one hour episodes of a TV show, no problem!

And, all in all, it was pretty good.

I had some trouble adjusting to the actors playing the various characters.

I had seen Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage in their parts early on in the production of the show, back when I was starting on the books, so they had already been inserted into my mental image of the characters.  But the rest, suddenly brought to life after nearly three thousand pages of story.

Jon Snow and Robb Stark both seemed more foppish than I would have imagined in sons of Eddard Stark.  And while I expected Cersei and Jamie to be young and attractive, Jamie Lannister was almost a pretty boy, and I immediately dubber him “Starbuck.” (Original BSG Dirk Benedick version.)  And Khal Drogo looked so much like Richard Kiel that I expected, when he opened his mouth, to see that he had metal teeth.  Not as bad as finding some character you liked and respected being played by Tom Cruise, but it can be jarring and does take a bit to get your mind in sync.

And was I the only one who, on seeing the first establishing shot of Winterfell, thought “Jabba’s other palace?”  It is the towers.

From the temperate zone of Tatooine?

(Picture from the Game of Thrones Wiki.)

The first two episodes also moved pretty quickly through the material of the book.  That was to be expected, of course, as a close examination of everything would require a lot more episodes.  And there was some very good use of the power of being able to show something rather than describe it in words.  But I still had to stop at one point to clear up a few details for my wife, who was completely unfamiliar with the books.

And I am not sure somebody who had not read the books could pick up all the important details that flashed by.  But that is always a hazard as well.  Do you make the show for the people who are already fans and will smile knowingly at little details, or for people new to the material and stop and highlight the important?  Things seemed to waver on that point, though we are only two episodes in now, so there is still plenty of time for certain things to come into focus.

Still, in the end, it was good stuff.  We zipped through the first two episodes and cursed the mail system because the soonest we could get the next disk was Monday.  Ah well.