The new Netflix rating system gets a thumbs-down

For the love of god, do you see what I did there?

We’re all busy people. That’s why I’ve spent the last two hours in the sun reading a book about the Revolutions of 1989 – god knows it’s been a non-stop afternoon.

Knowing what a bunch of busy so-and-sos we are, Netflix has helpfully decided to overhaul its ranking and recommendations systems – to help us decide what to watch when we’re pushed for time during our next entire evening in front of the sofa.

But by changing their star ratings system to a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down interface, I feel like they’ve rather muddied the waters.

Five-star nuances

The old idea of ratings was simple enough; you rate something from one to five stars, and Netflix uses your input to recommend other programmes and films.

Narrowing these down to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down system rather removes much of the nuances of rating and reviewing films.

Because people’s tastes can be so fluid and subjective – imagine Nicolas Cage in Face/Off…Now imagine him in Left Behind – it makes things more difficult when it comes to making some Netflix picks.

cage

Good thing they don’t have Vampire’s Kiss available in the UK – it would completely mess with the ratings system. Is it good? Is it bad? Who knows?

Example: at the moment me and the wife are watching seven seasons of Archer right from the very beginning. Between episodes we’re recommended something called Pacific Blue. I have no idea what this is, and from the prone position on the sofa that streaming services seem to enjoy imagining their subscribers from, there’s nothing much they think we can do other than to give it a try.

But again, with our time being so precious (I’m taking a break from the sun to write this and listen to the Leeds match), I don’t know that I’m willing and able to spend any amount of time blindly giving something a go.

But because streaming services’ goal is just to get you to keep watching, it’s probably better to risk giving the viewer more impetus to need to discover the things they’ll like.

And besides, considering Netflix judges what we’re watching rather than rating to make its big business decisions, it won’t work out too badly for them.

Innovation in programming

It’s a fairly well-known example but still pretty brilliant for us data nerds. The whole reason Netflix decided to create a new version of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey wasn’t a matter of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. With an eye on their customers’ viewing habits, they noticed that people who watched the original BBC version also watched a lot of Kevin Spacey films, and vice versa.

Having the ability to interpret that hard, single-channel data gives Netflix, Amazon Prime et al the confidence to invest in licensing TV rights packages, as well as creating new viewing pleasures – like the mini-Marvel universe we see through the eyes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. This gives streaming services a real foot up on cable and satellite TV. And having cancelled Sky TV myself a month ago, I’m really not missing it when I’m paying a lot less money per month for a lot more choice of what I want to watch, instead of what happens to be on.

Happy as I am though to wade into the wide world of online TV and film services to find something new whenever I open up the apps, I was a bit alarmed to open Netflix this morning to be presented with its other new feature – some sort of online dating service offering me a percentage match on their range of titles.

(And let’s not get into that too much. Some of the most fascinating-looking documentaries I’ve stumbled across today gave me matches in the sixty-percent range, while some actual dreadful BBC sitcoms ranked in the nineties.)

This clashes somewhat with another of the ways they recommend programmes and films to me – the ‘Because You Watched…’ ribbon.

Because you watched…

Right now I’m looking at two Julia Roberts films, J-Lo and Jennifer Aniston – “because you watched Serendipity”.

netflixrecs

No thanks!

While I can’t argue that this is a thing that happened, it’s only because I personally enjoy the work of John Cusack. Given the apparent distinct lack of hitmen and record shop owners in the films I’ve been shown here, I can’t say I’m likely ever to give them a go.

The same goes for Trailer Park Boys, which I watched the first episode of and decided not to any more – again, time being precious, I’m not saying it was downright terrible but I’m just not inclined to watch any more.

I didn’t apply a star rating for Trailer Park Boys, but if I’d given the show one star it wouldn’t show up again. However, now that there’s no better way to communicate this than a thumbs-down, I might not be shown anything similar again, even if it’s something I would otherwise check out.

This is the rub – to see more of what I think I’d like, and less of what I wouldn’t, I need to go thumb-crazy over all these menus, instead of spending the time actually watching things and finding out. It needs the sort of time that perhaps Netflix assumes we’ve got – seeing as we’re wasting away on our couches receiving constant prompts to see if we’re still watching.

That assumption isn’t really appreciated – not to sound snobby, but I’ve got better stuff to do. Like complain about it, apparently.

The X-Files 2016: monsters good, conspiracies bad

Fourteen years on from the last meaningful contact we had with them, and iconic FBI Agents Mulder and Scully are back on the case for six new TV episodes promising intrigue, visual spectacle and – maybe, just maybe – some answers to the big questions of the overarching mythology of The X-Files.

Six brand new episodes later, and I’m still none the bloody wiser. But we’ll get to that.

the-truth-is-out-there

‘Monster of the week’ – big successes

The middle four episodes of the new seasons of The X-Files were at times gripping, action-packed and even hilarious. Episode two continued to give me a sinking feeling before we finally hit upon a trio of decent-to-good episodes of the ‘monster of the week’ variety which gave the show its original cult appeal back in the 1990s.

My favourite by far of the new run was ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’, an episode written in much the same tongue-in-cheek manner as was worthy of their finest funny moments during the original run – but critically, made to be fresh and funny for this new age of TV rather than tinged with the camp sense of irony which we got so used to back then.

Relying on the old formula of scepticism versus belief, this battle was turned upside down with a few choice reveals about the guest stars Rhys Darby and Kumail Nanjiani, and some fantastically funny interpretations of the evidence including some ridiculous testimony by Darby’s character that he’d seduced Agent Scully in his place of work.

If we’d been treated to a few more episodes like this, without the need to drag up the over-arcing storyline which began to bog The X-Files down in its own pretentiousness first time round, we could have chalked the whole thing down as a job well done. But…ugh.

Mulder and scully x files 2016

The mythology episodes – big disappointments

When The X-Files first aired on the BBC, the scheduling was…let’s call it inconsistent. Being pre-empted at the drop of a hat for an episode of Question Time or, say, the World Hat Dropping Championships, meant that it got difficult to keep up with events if the show aired elsewhere that week. The bulk of the one-off episodes and the odd injection of long-term plot was fine to miss every now and then, but over time it became apparent that you just couldn’t miss a single episode or you’d be stuffed trying to keep up.

And at that age, and with that scheduling, well…I was stuffed.

With only six episodes in the entire run, even with a Sky+ box that’s temperamental at the worst of times, I didn’t expect to be hard done by from the scheduling this time. Sadly, the producers of the show decided to give us that same sense of baffling treatment themselves in the way they tried to cram a full six episodes’ worth of mythology material into two – and failed badly.

Entire scenes whizzed by and left me none the wiser as to what the hell just happened. Logical, reasoned discussion gave way to frenzied declarations like “the other shoe is waiting to drop!” or “No one has the right or the ability to tamper with your DNA,” as if we’re supposed to be caught up on 12 years of evidence-gathering in 12 seconds. This is The X-Files; I’m prepared to suspend my disbelief for a few minutes until another plot thread comes in to tide me over, but during the two rushed episodes which made up ‘My Struggle’ I was left hanging for ages at a time without any reason or willingness to go with it.

I don’t want to spoil things but the plausibility which the programme spent nine and a bit seasons trying to make you doubt really came through in the final ten minutes, as Scully performed the job of a team of medical scientists alone, in seemingly ten minutes.

On the whole, the X-Files revival was an excellent trip down memory lane in all the houses that are still lit up fondly – the one-off mysteries – but failed spectacularly to turn the lights on elsewhere – the headache-inducing twists and turns of the mythology. Judging by that cliffhanger it looks like we could see Mulder and Scully (not to mention Miller and Einstein, the weird Mini-Me characters) again down the line – but Scully herself would be proud of my scepticism that the conspiracy plot will be worth the return.

 

BBC Three – heading online-only for the youth market

I’m going to use that word tonight, aren’t I. That catch-all phrase for marketers who want to spend money making videos and podcasts and live streams to promote their product.

Content.

Eww. But since the government’s been content to slowly murder the BBC – death by a thousand cuts – they need to start up generating the other form of that word in order to get some bang for their buck.

So once BBC Three goes online-only (two weeks tomorrow if I’m not mistaken), the producers, programmers and bosses are confident that they’ll catch more of their market. Why’s that?

BBC Three logo online

BBC News reported on a study by Childwise, which has found that for the first time ever, five to sixteen-year olds are spending more time online than they are watching standard TV. And even then, Netflix is the most watched channel.

Less than a quarter of 15 and 16-year olds will watch TV as it’s broadcast, and nearly a third did not name a favourite TV programme.

All of a sudden I can’t tell if the BBC Three move online is a good or a bad thing.

I do know that the BBC’s been producing video content – shudder – and posting it online for a good long while now in an attempt to hook the yoof into watching their stuff on proper TV.

We all know where the youth dollar goes now – vloggers. I hate that word even more than ‘content’.

And, tellingly, the BBC has been painfully slow in getting to cover this topic for de yoofs market. Only tonight are we promised a programme about ‘superstar vloggers’, which for some completely unknown reason is being hosted by one of the very same superstars.

Bit much, really. Without caring to watch it – because fuck that, Impractical Jokers is on – I don’t see how you can expect to make a neutral, one-step-removed look at the whole thing by asking one of them to present it. It’d be like getting Robbie Savage to present a show about irritating ex-footballers.

There’s more programmes to come in this ‘online’ season of youth-oriented documentaries. I will be watching tomorrow’s – about eSports, for research – but I may join those youngsters with their hip hop and their happy slaps and watch it online at a later date instead.

I suppose we’ll yet find out how the new focus on the future will affect BBC Three viewers after it disappears from our telly boxes and exists solely online. I wonder if they’re expecting more hits than Zoella. Or if they even know who she is.

(Why do I know who she is? I work in content marketing, innit blud.)

Three things which make Daniel Craig’s James Bond unmissable

Filming the latest Bond adventure took up two years of Daniel Craig’s life – so unsurprisingly the word’s gone round that he’s thinking of hanging up the tuxedo.  According to Entertainment Weekly he’d rather ‘slash his wrists’ than appear for a fifth time as James Bond. Hardly the reaction you’d expect from an actor who’s now world-famous for being one of the lucky few to play 007, but only time will tell as to whether he’ll be back.

If Spectre does turn out to be Craig’s last hurrah as Bond, then fans around the world will surely wish him well in future endeavours – while others may pray that he’ll change his mind and get back in the Aston Martin for another go round. While Spectre looks set to tie up a fair few loose ends – the identity of the mysterious Mr White who’s appeared in previous instalments for one – it’s this continuity that fans of previous Bond eras have come to love, which means that in this more gritty series of films, replacing Craig would mean there’s a huge disconnect in the realism that we’d previously given up for dead every time a new Bond swaggered into the room. Now that Craig’s given us a twist of realism not seen since Timothy Dalton and early Pierce Brosnan, who even knows how long it would take audiences to get used to another new face?

daniel craig to quit as james bond

Daniel Craig at the 81st Academy Awards

For me there’s three key reasons why Daniel Craig has done such a sterling job of his time as Bond – something which the box office-shattering records would concur with.

The modern Bond

For starters, it might just be that he fits a more modern sort of spy drama better than any past Bond actors would have. This point was actually raised by former Goldfinger “Bond girl” Honor Blackman, whose comments in The Mirror newspaper even went so far as to say Craig is a superior actor to Sean Connery (who’s widely viewed by fans and critics alike as the best Bond, at least before Craig’s stint (though I’m partial to a bit of Dalton myself)). Blackman reckons that Connery was a perfect fit for the original adaptations of Ian Fleming’s work, whereas Craig fits the more modern and Bourne Identity-like style that the series has taken on.

This makes a whole lot of sense, and explains why imagining past Bonds specifically in Craig’s films just doesn’t work. (Seriously, try it yourself: Roger Moore doing parkour. Yikes.) Basically, Craig matches the films they’re making for him to star in, which elevates both his own performance and the films themselves.

High stakes Bond

I also really like Craig’s version of Bond because he feels like a genuine high roller of sorts, as opposed to a spy who feigns sophistication, or even pretentiousness, when necessary. (Again, try it yourself: this time, George Lazenby turning his nose up at the hotel accommodation.) We appreciate Bond’s more brutish qualities, but the reason that those high class scenes are sprinkled throughout Bond films give viewers of a certain age something to aspire to.

Just think about your everyday life for confirmation: we take notice of fancy cars and people who use valet parking; we dream wistfully of winning a few hands of high-stakes poker, or having special drinks brought to us in casinos. Even in the online gaming community, Gala Bingo has taken to offering a virtual champagne room to tap into its players’ desire for high-end living – though that’s strictly a BYOB sort of scene. Whether it’s a real (or virtual) casino floor, or simply the outside of a popular restaurant where the cars are parked, we always take notice of high roller status—and Craig exudes it.

Imagining any other Bond in some of the Casino Royale scenes, for instance, in which Craig is playing poker hands worth millions of dollars, almost seems comical. (For the hat-trick: Pierce Brosnan going all-in with a pair of twos. Impossible.) But when Craig does it, he looks like he belongs there, and that elevates his status with audiences.

Bond in love

But more than any of these factors, and almost in direct conflict with the idea of Bond’s high roller image, a common word used to praise Craig’s performance is that he made the role more “human” again. Moviepilot expanded on this, stating that “he feels anger, fear, and love.” Indeed, these are some of the most basic of human emotions, and yet past versions of the character hardly seemed to notice them, too busy moving on to the next gadget, girl, or gun. (We’re ignoring Lazenby here, right?) Craig has arguably given us the first Bond who takes the time to express himself, often wordlessly but always profoundly, and that, in the end, is what’s sealed his iconic turn as Bond, James Bond.

Some of the flashier stuff we’ve been treated to in the rebooted movies so far—Craig’s Bourne-like pace and action prowess, or his ability to embrace Bond’s high life—is a great deal of fun. But it’s the emotion that gets to us, and the emotion that we’ll miss if Spectre is indeed Craig’s last film in the series.

New ‘Star Trek’ TV series announced for CBS All Access

It’s quite exciting news for Trekkers in the States, as CBS announced that they’ll be airing a brand new Star Trek TV series in January 2017.

Well, the first episode of it anyway, according to Hollywood Reporter, as all following episodes will be shown exclusively on their CBS All Access online service. In terms of boldly going, this decision to air online-only certainly fits the bill, but will a more casual audience be prepared to spring for the monthly fee?

star trek tv series 2017

Obviously this won’t be the first time that Star Trek has struggled to find an audience – the original adventures of the USS Enterprise were cancelled the first time around in the late Sixties due to low ratings. Syndicating the original series breathed new life into the franchise, leading as we all know to no less than four more TV series and a long-lasting series of films.

The last TV series, Enterprise, went off the air ten years ago, and it’s now felt that the time is right to re-introduce serial drama in the Star Trek universe. It’s being overseen by Alex Kurtzman, who has been among the higher-ups which revived the film reboot in 2009, leading to much debate as to whether the new series will follow the re-established timeline or go back to life as we first knew it.

50 Years of Trek

By the time the new show airs, we’ll have passed a massive milestone in the history of Star Trek, celebrating 50 years since it first came on the air. As a massive fan of the original films (well, the even-numbered ones anyway) and a fairly avid watcher of the subsequent TV series, this announcement does rather excite me. But seeing as I’m all the way over here in Britain, where and when can I expect to see the programme air?

That’s an interesting one. It’s become common for British on-demand platforms to win the exclusive rights to air TV shows – I’m eagerly awaiting the day my fiancée finally signs up to Amazon Prime so that I can see Mr Robot – but as of yet it’s a mystery. Come to think of it, the fact that different sets of Star Trek rights now belong to completely different companies is a whole other headache.

When Viacom merged with CBS in 2000, the rights to Star Trek TV and film were split between the two, tearing Paramount asunder, with CBS picking up the TV production privileges and Viacom getting films. CBS were first out of the gate by launching – and soon ending – Enterprise, while the film went into production in the mid-2000s.

Giving exclusive airing rights to a streaming platform in an attempt to convince Trekkers with their five dollars a month is an absolute no-brainer, but here in the UK where I’ve literally heard of All Access for the first time today, it’s hard to tell whether a more casual audience can be tempted.

I’m quite excited for the TV future of Star Trek ­– mainly because we all know by now what I made of the movie reboot – but it’s going to be a tough sell for many viewers.

CSI: Cyber – I can see for miles (past this crap)

I watched the first two episodes of CSI: Cyber over the weekend. It made me remember how much I used to really enjoy watching the other programmes which made up the CSI franchise, as they all performed well in different ways.

And now there’s CSI: Cyber which has…some of the laziest writing and awful plotting I’ve ever seen on a cop show. The amount of threadbare exposition and stumbling onto plot points that the Cybercrimes Division did in the two episodes I’ve seen, they make NCIS Los Angeles look like fucking Poirot.

I decided to write a review for the website; fortunately I haven’t been completely scared away from operating technology despite this programme’s best (worst) efforts.

CSI: Cyber

(Deserves better)

There’s a running joke on the Botchamania series that, whenever the wrestler Sonjay Dutt is featured, his intro caption includes the phrase “(deserves better)”. And that’s how I felt when I saw that the first season of CSI: Cyber is headlined by the trio of Patricia Arquette, Peter MacNicol and James Van Der Beek. (Though I’m not so surprised to see that MacNicol is no longer a part of the show as of season two.) Despite what my macho status otherwise indicates, I was a big fan of Medium, Ally McBeal and, yes, Dawson’s Creek as well; seeing the stars of all three in the same room saying actual lines like “this computer is an accessory to murder” made my heart hurt a bit. (Take a bow, Peter.)

Arquette plays FBI Special Agent Avery Ryan; a psychologist whose patient records were once hacked, leading to the murder of one of her patients. Her determination never to let something so awful happen again is what led her to head up a team of computer experts in the war against cyber-crime.

It’s a decent enough back story for our lead, and a good reason for her distrust of the scum that preys upon innocent people from behind a computer screen. This distrust is played up for maximum shock value throughout the cold open; in the case of the second episode we’re at a theme park where a ride is sabotaged, killing some of its customers.

The drama is ramped up; fiances are left ruing the day they brought their beloved here; officers of the law sullenly get statements, and our cast makes the requisite sad/shocked faces when presented with what happened.

And now, for my second Law & Order comparison of the week, a crime show done properly; you know when Ed Green turns up to see the guy murdered outside the fancy restaurant, and Lennie Briscoe cracks wise with a line like “he should’ve stayed home and ordered a pizza”? That is what years on the job does to you; desensitises you beyond all reasonable reaction.

Here at the rollercoaster crash, and far from getting on with their jobs at an efficient pace, our cast are practically on their knees, shouting “KHAAAAAAAN” at the sky like a bad William Shatner impression. COMPUUUUUUUUUUUUTERS!!!!!

Stop all the downloadin’!

From the beginning, and not helped by lines like “this computer is an accessory to murder” is the immense distrust they’re heaping on computers, coding, basically anything that you can plug in.

In the original series we got exposition of blood spatter, gunshot residue, even the paths that bullets take from gun to victim – all via fancy graphics that were scientifically sound, not to mention highly educational in an age where courtrooms were only just getting to know the fascinating side of forensic science.

Here, DER GREEN CODE IS GOOD BUT DER RED CODE IS BAD. Thanks, nerd guy – not at all patronising and fake. I’d feel better about this absolutely pandering mode of address if the programme were made 20 years ago, but here we are, being talked down to by a fat bloke wearing glasses because that’s what most computer programmers look like.

DawsonCrying

The investigation process/unfolding plot then takes some nonsensical liberties and horrible shortcuts to get us from suspect to suspect, each time presenting us with ugly, ugly men with big jumpers who obviously live in their parents’ basement. (They even make an ironic joke along those lines at the end of episode one, as if showing some self-awareness to try and disprove that trope – but sadly they seemed not to realise that the programme actually was banging that drum throughout the episode.)

How else do we know that tech is scary and dangerously unreliable? When we see scenes filled with numbers, letters, and diagrams that just come flying out of smartphones, laptops and big screens, all over each shot as our agents are faced with information overload. That’s pretty much every single scene. It’s actually sort of sad; those same bursts of information were hugely helpful in previous programmes when showing us a vital piece of evidence coming into play – here it’s just a massive headache.

And all that jargon! Bad enough when the cyber-geeks have to stop what they’re doing and explain it to MacNicol (presumably he’s only there so that we get the explanations as he does…no wonder he left), but even worse when they’re actually just factually wrong about something, or just talking absolute bollocks. If they’d just stop explaining it in overly simplified terms which still don’t make sense, we’d get to the result much faster.

If CSI: Cyber had debuted alongside its cooler older brother some fifteen years ago, when cyber-hacking was still a thing in Hollywood to make sci-fi movies from, you could at least forgive all the needlessly complicated and sometimes just plain wrong language, but all these years later it just comes off as cheesy and not interesting. And who even thought Cyber was a good suffix anyway? Actually, scratch that – it’s clear just from watching the programme that they’re painfully behind the times.

One to avoid – unless you really like CSI, especially when Ted Danson’s character joins for season two.

BBC drama ‘The Gamechangers’ – show, don’t tell

When I read that Harry Potter and Hudson from Aliens were teaming up to tell the story of the controversial battle between rebellious Rockstar Games and righteous attorney Jack Thompson in 2002, I had mixed feelings.

‘The Gamechangers’ was produced by the BBC as part of a season to promote some digital initiative or another, and aired last month to a general negative reaction.

While there’s certainly a good story to be told about one of the most controversial games of the new millennium, for me it needed to be drawn from as wide a range of sources as possible in presenting the tale of Rockstar’s ducking and diving, their colossal PR blunders and Thompson’s overzealous efforts to clean up the act of American pop culture.

Sadly, what we got was Jacked: The Movie Of The Book – less than that, even, considering its running time and what they had to try and cram in.

‘Jacked’ – poor source material

We’ve covered my issues with David Kushner’s book Jacked in a previous post; the lack of depth, the poorly-woven conflict between the two sides – so much that readers could be forgiven for thinking there was none – and, most damningly, the big Rockstar-shaped hole in the story due to their refusal to participate.

So when the quality of storytelling is found lacking in book form, god knows how the BBC thought it would translate to a 90-minute TV movie.

You can’t doubt the acting credentials of the two leads; Bill Paxton has turned in some fine performances of late including a first-season stint on Agents of SHIELD; while Daniel Radcliffe won me over with his brilliant performances in A Young Doctor’s Notebook. They’re competently backed by a cast including Skins’ Joe Dempsie and Ian Keir Attard, playing fellow Rockstar employees Jamie King and Dan Houser.

I mean no offence when I say their work was only ‘competent’ but there were some absolutely massive issues with the plot, pacing and especially the dialogue, which meant that nobody was going to come out of this one well.

the gamechangers bbc two gta rockstar

Show, don’t tell

I’m no expert but I do fancy myself a bit of a scriptwriter and storyteller, and for me the First Rule of Storytelling is (we’ll skip the Fight Club joke here) ‘show, don’t tell’.

I appreciate that, given the limited time they had to flesh out the characters and focus on an ever-developing plot, that there wasn’t much time to establish personality and relationships before we got cracking with the multiple murders and terrible programming montages.

But when Radcliffe turns to Attard and says something like ‘you were always the smart one, little brother’, it absolutely reeks of poor setup. Anything would’ve worked better here to establish the Housers’ relationship. “Sorry, this letter’s addressed to my brother Sam; I’m Dan.” There you go BBC, you can have that one.

I’m feeling generous so we won’t dwell on that particular example, but if you’ll allow me a little bit of presumption then we’ll head straight into the egregious violation of exposition that is Jack Thompson’s brief dalliance with preamble.

He’s in the garden practicing his golf swing one-handed, and he’s talking on the phone to someone called Margaret. And this is pretty much what he tells her – I’m paraphrasing but check for yourself:

“I’d love to help you out but I’m sort of a ‘toxic’ lawyer these days. Yeah, nobody wants to deal with me because I got Howard Stern and the 2 Live Crew rap album banned for violating obscenity laws, and subsequently, nobody wants to be represented by a kooky moral campaigner.”

“Why do I do it? What can I say, cos I’m Batman. And god rose this asshole up to do good.”

The woman he’s talking to is called Margaret.

Stick with me here, because here’s the presumption: how the fuck has Jack’s mate, Margaret, EVER heard of 2 Live Crew? Was that particular group ever popular amongst a demographic containing people called Margaret?

Secondly, how is it remotely believable of an everyday phone conversation that Thompson can refer to himself three times, using three different titles? “Kooky moral campaigner”. “Batman.” “This asshole.”

(Tell you what, I’m going to try this tomorrow at work and see what happens. “Yeah, thanks for sending that email, god knows this douchebag could’ve done with it sooner. What can I say; everyone loves working with a diligent researcher. I’m basically The Flash.”)

And thirdly, during this phone call with a woman named Margaret who’s just trying to hire a lawyer, does she really ask him the question “why do you do it, Jack?” No, she probably says “that’s nice, dear, but I have to go – my medical malpractice case won’t make itself.”

I’ll assume that what the script tries to put over here is Thompson’s wavering credibility for making those moral stands, and that he’s only repeating what he’s heard, rather than what he knows to be true – yeah, I’m that guy – because otherwise none of this has any fucking relevance in a real life phone call to someone called Margaret who just wants to hire a lawyer.

You can have this for free as well, BBC – try just running a few newspaper headlines past us while we see Jack practicing his golf or something, instead of this contrived phone call.

More like The Channel-changers

If you’ve read Jacked or know about this case, then you know what happens here; Rockstar gets into bother over some Hot Coffee, Thompson gets himself disbarred for an overly aggressive pursuit of the scumbags who made the game, rather than the people who committed the violent crimes it allegedly directly caused, and life goes on with a renewed focus on regulating the naughty stuff in the entertainment industry.

But as I’ve said before, there’s precious little overlap – and precious little detail when it does – between the two parties. Everything’s relayed to each character by a different supporting character – Houser’s colleagues and Thompson’s family – and there’s even a subplot about Dempsie’s burning out on the job just so there can be genuine interactions and feelings between characters, instead of reactions to things which aren’t physically happening in the room we’re in.

The whole thing was like watching an episode of Law & Order – you know the bit where Jack McCoy’s about to prosecute based on the findings of a blood sample, but then the extra walks in and dramatically hands him a motion to dismiss? Watching The Gamechangers was like we’re following that extra about for an entire episode while all the good stuff happens elsewhere.

I must admit I was intrigued by a new take on the dawn of a new era in gaming, but not even the decent casting helped get this patchy story off the ground.

‘Halt And Catch Fire’ is great for drama, even better for geek culture

Since activating our free trial of Amazon Prime a month ago – mainly so I could buy a Playstation 4, thank you Prime Day – me and my fiancée have been keen to watch as much of the good stuff as possible through the Amazon Instant Video service before the trial ends.

So after rattling through the sole season of the criminally-cancelled Freaks and Geeks, we found a new programme from AMC – home of Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad yada yada yada – that hasn’t been given nearly the amount of love it deserves.

halt and catch fire review amc

Premiering last year, Halt And Catch Fire has just wrapped up its second season of airing on AMC before transitioning straight to streaming. Since even hearing of its existence only a week or so ago, we’ve enjoyed all of the show’s twenty episodes to date.

And personally I’d absolutely love to see another ten. Much like a Randy Orton finisher, Halt And Catch Fire has come from out of nowhere to captivate and entertain me with its brilliant mix of character-driven drama and fascinating contextual background.

Set during the 1980s, the programme begins with the story of its three main characters working on an exciting new project at Cardiff Electric. Joe Macmillan is the suave yet deeply troubled character who charms his way into a top job overseeing the production of one of the very first personal computers. With more than a hint of Spacey-esque smarm about him, Joe leads a team including recovering techaholic Gordon Clark and young hot prospect Cameron Howe into developing what would become the Cardiff Giant. The name refers to the tall tale of legend which acts as a great metaphor for their struggle both in its mythical promotion and actual behind-the-scenes deceptions.

The three characters struggle to build relationships and business acumen in their bid to out-IBM IBM, and the personal and professional heartache caused as a result. There’s a real friction between the three characters and whoever else they interact with, all of which is brilliantly plotted and performed, as we get a soft reset into season two, where supporting characters Donna Clark and John Bosworth are also brought to the fore for even more of the same great writing and acting.

What’s equally great about the programme is its heavy investment in context; the whole computing industry in its infancy is very well captured within the programme, borrowing liberally from real events. It doesn’t necessarily play out in order, nor is all of it necessarily accurate, but the painstaking degrees of realism throughout in costumes, music and design – right down to the last microchip or Talking Heads track – make it a real treat for computer geeks keen to learn about the world that was.

Highlight of the programme for me is Toby Huss who plays Bosworth – I found out only last night that he played the iconic role of Artie, The Strongest Man In The World during the 90s – whose tough-talking, wise-cracking nature belies a deep sense of loyalty to those around him.

If Halt And Catch Fire is available for streaming on your chosen service, I highly recommend you get it streaming on your TV – and cross your fingers for a third helping of 80s tech geekdom.

Channel 4’s Humans is philosophical and shouty – and I loved it

As the credits rolled on Episode One, Channel 4 knew they had a hit on their hands with Humans, which racked up their best ratings for primetime drama in 20 years. So, was this sci-fi programme worth all the hype?

Humans Channel 4 William Hurt

William Hurt as George (image: Channel 4)

Humans is a co-production between Channel 4 and the American network AMC, best known for their zombies, meth dealers, ad men and comic shop workers. Production across the Atlantic was meant to be supplied by XBox Entertainment, but they went kablooey last year so AMC stepped in.

The concept: since scientist David Elster cracked the artificial intelligence puzzle, the new must-have consumer item is a ‘Synth’ – a robotic humanoid that’s mostly used to serve. Over the course of eight episodes, the relationship between Synths and their human masters is explored in a wide range of different storylines, ranging from kitchen sink drama (one family’s adoption of the latest model) to conspiracy thriller (the search for sentience among a group of Synths and their pursuers), and weaving in a link to their creation through William Hurt’s character and his own clapped-out Synth.

You don’t get a lot of metaphysics in your prime-time TV any more, do you? I don’t expect to see any of it on tonight’s series opener of The Great British Bake-Off for example – mainly because I don’t expect to see any of that programme at all – but Humans delivers it in spades. Sci-fi at its best is a morality tale, no matter what the scale, and some of the discussions between, for example George Millican and Niska from the group of Synths, really do well in setting up the deeper issues about humans, robots and the limits of consciousness among other things that separate them. Though hardly ground-breaking it’s really a joy to watch.

Another thing I really enjoyed during the series was the overall performances by the cast. Though a couple of the regulars irked me slightly (particularly in the Hawkins household), I thought Katherine Parkinson was brilliant as Laura; initially confused and betrayed at being ostensibly replaced by Anita, she’s got some baggage of her own too.

I’d also single out the Millican household, with the relationship between Will Tudor as the obsolete and failing Odi, and William Hurt as Dr Millican being so well played and even heart-warming. That’s the irony, of course; having feelings for a robot that doesn’t have feelings. As Hurt – who I’m now even prepared to forgive for Lost in Space, that’s how good he was – tells the Niska character, Odi has kept George’s memories of his late wife alive, stored in his own synthetic memory where George’s has failed due to a stroke. That’s why George relies on Odi so much despite his own slide into decrepitude – a very Microserfs sentiment, if you’ve read that book.

In an ambitious programme like Humans there’s got to be a glitch, and sadly there are a couple of issues with plot and pace – scenes are occasionally rushed through to get to the next chunk of development, rather than allowed to sit and unfurl with generous exposition. The dialogue too is sometimes a little stilted, which wouldn’t be a problem with the Synths who are still missing plenty of the subtleties of conversation, but not with fully human family ‘banter’.

Aside from those little nitpicks though, Humans is a fantastic mix of domestic drama and conspiracy thriller brought together by gripping themes, great acting and a good old Sunday night session of philosophy. I’m very much looking forward to series two!

Five For Friday: Workplace Films

Five For Friday is an ongoing weekly series in which I pick five of my favourite things along the same theme. Last week we took a page from High Fidelity in examining Side One, Track Ones. This week, a salute to the 9 to 5 ratrace.

Top Five Workplace Films 

There are a lot of people out there who actually do like their jobs. I’m one of them. But in the entertainment world you don’t get far by making stuff about what people find satisfying. Even in the most secure and stable of personalities, there has to be an itch to scratch.

Many people don’t like their jobs. And they are the ones who get films made about them. From record shops to offices, here are my favourite workplace films; starring quirky characters and with scripts that manage to turn the humdrum and mundane working existence into an existential crisis.

In order of release:

Clerks (1994)

Clerks was made for under $30,000 and launched the film career of its writer and director, Kevin Smith. It’s a pretty amazing story captured in full on the Clerks X DVD extras, and it inspired me to start writing many a film script before jacking it in a full ten pages later. The film itself is, of course, a fantastic comedy highlighting the plight of full-time shop monkey Dante, struggling between getting a real job and the comfortable existence he enjoys at the convenience store alongside best friend and primo antagoniser Randal.

clerks kevin smith

That’s Kevin Smith. Originally he wasn’t even supposed to be (here today) in the film, but if I remember correctly he had to take this line from Jay because Jay kept messing it up and they were running out of film. That’s indie filmmaking for you, and this film in particular helped bring about a huge resurgence in low-budget straight-talking films…

Empire Records (1995)

…kind of like this one. Released just a year later for what I imagine is also not much money, Empire Records is just one of those very, VERY quotable films that anyone who’s seen it can incorporate into their daily geek language.

empire records review

It starts with what appears to be an employee stealing company money and frittering it away at the casino, but ‘bad apple’ Lucas is just misunderstood for reasons that become clear later. In contrast to what I said earlier, most of the people here at Empire Records do like their jobs, but it’s very much a stopgap for some who are trying to work out what to do with their lives, too.

Oh, and also the events of the film take place on Rex Manning Day – the greatest made-up holiday ever.

It’s surprising how many of the cast are, while let’s not go mad and say they’re all A-listers, still knocking around on TV. Aside from Mizzes Tyler and Zellweger, Anthony LaPaglia (Joe) and Rory Cochrane (Lucas) went on to long-term gigs in Jerry Bruckheimer crime dramas, while Johnny Whitworth was quite recently seen in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – the less said about that though, the better. (He does follow me on Twitter though – if only because I tweeted about Rex Manning Day a while back.)

Joe is a superb manager though, let’s not forget that.

Office Space (1999)

Office Space is the absolute go-to film for anyone who has a begrudging indifference towards their job – not so resentful of it that they are encouraged to seek alternative employment, but not so buoyed by it that they can throw themselves into the working week with wild enthusiasm.

office space gif

Not unless they’re destroying office equipment, anyway; but writer-director Mike Judge has done very well in drawing from his own history in soul-destroying office jobs to come up with not only this fantastic film, but also in creating Silicon Valley, which takes a similar approach in magnifying the cracks which appear in California tech culture.

High Fidelity (2000)

I remember being unsure that this would work as a film. How wrong I was. At one point in my life, working at Championship Vinyl would’ve been my dream job, despite even its owner Rob’s near-despair at how he’d merely rattled along all those years without embracing his lot in life. His own business, a regular crowd of hip young gunslingers and the love of a good woman…who he’d managed to drive away partly because of his own reluctance to cling onto something.

high fidelity review

Man, I love John Cusack. Between Rob Gordon, Lloyd Dobler and Martin Blank he ran the entire length of the emotional spectrum – all amazing characters and all somewhere in my own Top 5 of pretty much anything. These characters are at the same time so relatable and so distant – while I’m most inclined to identify with Rob’s love of music and Lloyd’s romantic naivety, even hitman Martin Blank offers that coldness which all of us must wish we could sometimes have to get out of a bad way of feeling.

Waiting… (2005)

Finally, this one took me a bit by surprise when I first watched it at university. I liked Ryan Reynolds well enough from Two Guys & A Girl but wasn’t too struck by the rest of the cast so gave this a miss first time around. Then when I realised the film had been misrepresented by the UK press and was, in fact, a bloody funny film, I became a big fan.

waiting john francis daley

It reminds me a lot of Empire Records in that whole ensemble-cast-of-wacky-kids way, but the humour is much too filthy to draw further comparisons. I especially like John Francis Daley’s character, Mitch, who draws comparisons to Silent Bob by barely getting a word in edgeways throughout the film – though this is more due to his rude colleagues than out of habit.

I’ll be giving all of these films another watch in the near future I think, if only to remind me that even when work’s getting me down, it could be worse – I could have Milton for a colleague.