Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

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“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”

The Serpent, Episode 8

“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”

The Investigation, Episode 6

The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other.  Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.

On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.

Watching The Investigation¸ the difference is palpable. There’s no attention-grabbing stunt casting, no recognisable actor made to look eerily (or vaguely) similar to the murderer – who is, pointedly, only ever referred to here as “the accused” – it’s all decidedly, pointedly low-key. Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed all six episodes, said he wanted to tell “a different kind of story here, not just another tale of a “fascinating” man who killed a woman […] a story where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator. The story was simply not about him”. The Investigation is quiet and careful, as methodical in its writing as the process it depicts, and it’d be difficult to seriously argue that it’s particularly sensationalist or sleazy – compared to The Serpent, it’s aseptic. In lieu of focusing on the suspect, or depicting the crime itself in any detail, Lindholm centres the people affected (or tries to, at least).

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Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.

However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.

More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?

The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)

What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.

That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine was, in fairness, a very good idea. Cop shows are one of the most enduring dramatic engines on television: taking the police procedural and crossing it with the workplace sitcom was, if not inspired, certainly a clever conceit, offering a premise that could easily sustain ninety-nine episodes and then some. Really, it’s no wonder that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is as popular as it is. It’s smart and it’s funny, the cast are fantastic, and it’s reliably charming in a way that makes for perfect comfort-food television. It’s better than a lot of the shows it most clearly resembles, too – better than Parks and Recreation, better than The Good Place – and better than a lot of shows it doesn’t resemble too.

It’s also a lie. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police are sweet and silly and basically harmless; the actual New York Police Department is plainly anything but.

Cop shows are essentially image control for police departments. They always have been: Dragnet, one of the earliest examples of what we understand now as the modern police procedural, was strictly fact checked by the LAPD’s Public Information Division, and many of its contemporaries were written by former policemen. Decades later, with crime dramas spinning off into one franchise after the next, that perspective has calcified and become ubiquitous: the police are always the protagonists. The supposed need for police and policing is always being reinforced, even if individual officers are singled out or structures are criticised – cop shows don’t have, and can’t have, a frame of reference beyond the police. There will never be a meaningful critique of the police within the confines of a cop show, because cop shows fundamentally believe in the need for the police.

Those inclined to defend Brooklyn Nine-Nine would point to those episodes where it engaged more directly with a complicated reality. But that too serves to exculpate the police, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine critiques the past, but in doing so it comments on the present, and the implication of progress whitewashes the very real problems that still endure. In contrast, when Brooklyn Nine-Nine has made efforts to address contemporary failings on part of the police, it’s always been in terms of individuals rather than structures, positing that it’s just a case of ‘one bad apple’ rather than anything wider. Its widely-celebrated fourth season episode Moo-Moo is deft and sensitive, but it’s so focused on the actions of one individual it misses the point of the systemic criticism levelled at the police; if anything, Moo-Moo is more of an argument as to why ‘good’ cops might choose to stay silent, portraying them as sympathetic rather than complicit.

In eliding those systemic issues, Brooklyn Nine-Nine sanitises the police. The idea that there are individual good and bad police officers is an unhelpful one, belying the reality that the problem isn’t the individuals at all, but the wider structures and unjust laws they uphold. (Although it’s also worth just digressing briefly to point out that they aren’t even good cops in Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Jake makes arrests on intuition rather than evidence; Rosa is quick to use excessive force; so on, so forth.) Arguably, it’s not a million miles away from sharing staged pictures of police officers kneeling at protests: at best it’s a distraction from the real issues, and at worst it actively encourages complacency and ignorance.

Terry Crews has said that Season 8 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will touch on recent protests, the cast and crew having had “eye-opening conversations about how to handle this new season”. The idea of an lazily caricatured activist finding a heartwarming compromise with the ‘good cops’ at the 99th Precinct is repugnant, but there’s something about it that seems almost unavoidable – Brooklyn Nine-Nine won’t be able to ignore the protests entirely, nor will they be able to meaningfully critique the police while still holding to their original premise.

Perhaps the show could be salvaged through total reinvention – if, when season 8 started, the characters were all teachers, or journalists, or postal workers, refuting the cop show premise entirely and tacitly admitting to its flaws. Arguably it’d be the strongest textual statement they could make about police brutality, far more meaningful that any ‘very special episode’ could hope to be: such a reinvention would be a genuine acknowledgement that, yes, the narrative Brooklyn Nine-Nine advanced as a goofy show about lovable police was and is a harmful one that need be abandoned.

Short of that? It’s time for the show to end. At this point, it’d be no great loss: it’s nearing its conclusion anyway – the ninth episode of the ninth season no doubt an attractive stopping point – and these are all talented enough performers that they’ll easily find work elsewhere. (Stephanie Beatriz can be the new Batwoman, for one thing.) As it is, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is tantamount to propaganda – a slick, well-made comedy that tacitly argues that the solution to police brutality is simply a nicer and more diverse police force. It whitewashes real issues and obscures real solutions, to the point of being actively harmful – so it’s time, surely, to cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again.

For more, A World Without Police, by the organisation of the same name, is a useful starting point. Meanwhile, Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing is currently available as a free eBook, and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? can be found here.

You may also want to donate to Black Lives Matter UK or to the Black Visions Collective in America.


Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

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Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

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It’s odd to think of Space Force as a satire, exactly, even though that’s presumably how you’re meant to understand it. Few recent comedies have responded so directly, and so literally, to the Trump era; most have been more oblique in their commentary, and others faltered when all they had to offer was the dim thrill of recognition. (Veep in its final season struggled particularly on that front.) Yet Space Force is altogether more upfront about its inspiration, advertising its real-world premise right from the start.

To recap: in the summer of 2018, Trump announced the creation of a sixth branch of the American Military, the Space Force. It was met with exactly the jokes you’d expect – bad ones – and then it was largely forgotten about, meriting the occasional mention whenever it was in the news again. (The logo looks a lot like the Star Trek logo! Why are the uniforms in a camouflage pattern, what is there to hide from in space?) Everyone moved on, apart from Netflix; looking to capitalise on sub-SNL level twitter memes, they pitched “Space Force” to Steve Carrell, who brought Greg Daniels onboard in turn. The show was announced in January 2019, and that long-awaited reunion was key to its appeal: Netflix’s first trailer boasted “created by the guys who brought you The Office” and “starring Steve Carrell” and little else. Production was quick, and a little over a year later, here it is – the TV show launching before a single rocket got off the ground.

On the face of it, then, it seems obvious what Space Force was meant to be: a satire. Not necessarily a high-minded one, no – it wouldn’t be, the premise is riffing on “President Drumpf is so orange” style twitter jokes – but that’s hardly a problem in and of itself. A workplace comedy that leans into the absurdity of the Trump administration to lambaste its wider failings certainly could work, even if being quite so literal-minded in its approach brings obvious risks with it (is this the moment to debut a comedy about the institutional incompetence of the US government, given everything?).

But Space Force is hardly that at all. If anything, it seems to aspire to be to Trump’s military what Brooklyn Nine-Nine is to the police – it’s far more celebratory than it is critical, and much too deferential in its outlook to broach even the softest satire. At its heart, Space Force fundamentally believes in the value of the actual United States Space Force. That assumed merit underlines the entire programme, preventing the Space Force from ever truly being an object of ridicule – the moral at the end of every half hour quite clear that, no matter how many costly mistakes they might make, or animals they might kill, everyone in the Space Force has a heart of gold. It’s telling, actually, that Carrell, Daniels, and Lisa Kudrow (wasted throughout in a baffling role) each seemed to have convinced themselves that a branch of the army dedicated to space warfare isn’t just a good idea, but a necessary one –  “if we didn’t have one,” Daniels explained in an interview, “we would still need one because of other countries doing the same thing”.

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Quickly, then, it starts to become clear why Space Force’s satire isn’t quite as sharp as one might expect. The viral jokes that inspired Netflix in the first place didn’t, on any level, treat Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force seriously; Space Force, however, takes it (mostly) at face value. There’s something a little strange about how it hedges its bets, actually: Space Force the comedy is quite plainly an effort to capitalise on the widespread mockery the real project received, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the show would follow broadly the same tone. Perhaps in the rush to get the show finished while it was still relevant – it was obviously a speedy production, with Ben Schwartz clearly not in the same room as everyone else for the first two episodes – they forgot why the premise was supposed to be funny in the first place?

But, no, because there is an obvious reason why Space Force is altogether more hesitant in execution than in concept, and it’s likely why Daniels et al convinced themselves of the need for a real Space Force: because ridiculous or not, they’re still the army. “It’s not our intention to go all-out and poke fun at the military. Steve and I both have relatives in the military. We have a lot of respect for all the positives that our relatives have,” said Daniels in one interview, and explained in another that “our goal was to make somebody in the military enjoy the show and not feel like some snotty Hollywood person was making fun of them”.

What should have been the target of Space Force’s satire instead became its target audience – and it never shakes that belief that the military can do nothing wrong. In a smarter show, Steve Carrell’s character would almost be the villain of the piece, with John Malkovich’s Chief Scientist Dr Mallory the lead; more often than not though, Space Force is about learned experts being proven wrong by the infallible instinct of military men. Far from deflating Trump’s supposedly absurd scheme, Space Force buys into the hype and then some.

With that in mind, then, it’s especially striking who Space Force does position as an antagonist. Not Trump; he’s curiously absent. Nor Carrell’s General Naird either, as we’ve established – though there are moments when it seems he might almost be the villain of the piece, likely the lingering remnants of otherwise discarded drafts. Instead, “Anabela Ysidro-Campos” – a lazy caricature of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – is Space Force’s adversary of choice in the first half of its run. (Although that’s a slight misrepresentation: she’s actually “the angry young congresswoman” for most of the time she’s onscreen, only named relatively late in the day.) It’s notable that, for all that Carrell et al maintained this was a non-partisan show, it’s a left-wing politician who comes under most criticism from the show: most of her scenes play as though someone saw the viral clips of Ocasio-Cortez tearing Mark Zuckerberg apart and thought “wouldn’t it be great if he won the argument, and also he was Steve Carrell?”

That Space Force found Ocasio-Cortez an easier target than Trump is unsurprising – and it’s not her politics, in a straightforward sense at least, that come under attack. Rather, their Ocasio-Cortez analogue is worthy of disdain because she dares question the military, instead of accepting it as a simple unassailable good. It’s borne of that obsequious deference to the army that sees Space Force pull its punches time after time. There’s an inclination perhaps to chalk that up to a Netflix executive somewhere, worried about the response if they were perceived to mock the troops – more likely, though, it was just an immediate, instinctive reluctance on the part of those involved.

Whether satire can sustain in an increasingly absurd world is an oft-repeated talking point – probably, to be frank, too often. Space Force, in its attempt to tackle that absurdity head on, illustrates a far more fundamental problem: stripped of any actual critique, lacking any meaningful target, its comedy is inert and impotent. It’s hard not to look at the time and money – especially the money – that went into Space Force and wonder what, exactly, the point of it all was.


We’ve seen I Am Not Okay With This before, but that’s the point

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We’ve seen I Am Not Okay With This before, but that’s the point

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Cynically, it isn’t hard to guess why I Am Not Okay With This was commissioned: a Netflix executive demanded a version of The End of the F***ing World they wouldn’t have to share with Channel 4.

Even before one considers the actual content of the show – though in a moment we will – I Am Not Okay With This invites comparison to its transatlantic predecessor. Most obviously, both are based on graphic novels by Charles Forsman, but they’re also both being adapted by the same people, too: Jonathan Entwhistle, credited as the creator of I Am Not Okay With This, directed most of The End of the F***ing World’s first series, and served as producer on the second. It’s no surprise, then, that one coming-of-age show narrated by its teenage leads, with a timeless-by-way-of-the-80s aesthetic and an indie music soundtrack, all told in twenty-ish minute episodes, felt like another coming-of-age show narrated by its teenage leads, with a timeless-by-way-of-the-80s aesthetic and an indie music soundtrack, all told in twenty-ish minute episodes. I Am Not Okay With This comes as close to feeling like The End of the F***ing World as it plausibly could without hiring Jessica Barden, Alex Lawther and Charlie Covell.

Of course, I Am Not Okay With This isn’t just imitating The End of the F***ing World, and wears its other influences on its sleeves too. Most obviously, it’s been shaped by Stephen King – not just in borrowing some iconic imagery from Carrie, but also taking its two leads from It (2017) – and shares a producer with Stranger Things, one of Netflix’s few remaining megahits (which itself was, of course, influenced by King’s work, antecedents folding in on one another). It’s this that offers an insight into I Am Not Okay With This’ most significant departure from The End of the F***ing WorldI Am Not Okay With This is the latest in a long line of genre shows to use the supernatural as an extended metaphor for their teenage protagonists’ (and audience’s) real-life concerns. In this case, it’s a framework to approach mental health issues: lead character Syd, in the months following her father’s suicide, develops telekinetic powers while struggling with angry outbursts and volatile mood swings of her own. I Am Not Okay With This is hardly subtle in its metaphor, but in fairness, it doesn’t exactly need to be.

It feels – obviously – familiar. There’s a shape to it, to its content and form, recognisable from each of these antecedents and more: alongside The End of the F***ing World, Carrie and Stranger Things¸ Netflix’s latest offering shares certain similarities with Sex Education and Riverdale, as well as arguably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one episode late in the run models itself on The Breakfast Club. There’s a sense that everything here you’ve seen before, in some constituent part or another, somewhere else on television.

Is that familiarity a bad thing though?

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Not necessarily.

First and foremost, it’s worth noting that – by plenty of different metrics, some more meaningful than others – I Am Not Okay With This is quite a good television programme. In a sense, that’s not a surprise; we’ve already illustrated how the show has been built, piece by piece, from other successful forebears, so it follows that I Am Not Okay With This might have some success of its own. There’s a very finely tuned formula in place here, and, in fairness, it’s a formula that’s been executed well: if you liked The End of the F***ing World, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll like this. The timeless aesthetic is well-executed, the indie soundtrack well-deployed, and in an era of increasingly over-long television, there’s always something to appreciate about twenty-minute episodes. I Am Not Okay With This is a confident, self-assured piece of television: the people who made it know what they’re doing (not least because they’ve done it before), and it shows.

If there’s anything unique to I Am Not Okay With This that’s worth celebrating, it is its two leads: Sophia Lillis as Sydney Novak, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Barber. They’re both playing well-worn archetypes – if you’d heard of I Am Not Okay With This before its Netflix release, there’s a reasonably high chance you knew it from a semi-viral tweet that mocked the trailer’s opening line, “I’m just a boring seventeen year old white girl” – but do so with aplomb. The pair are genuinely charming in their roles, sharing an easy chemistry no doubt in part borne of their experience of working together previously; again, I Am Not Okay With This benefits from its finely-honed sense of where to steal from. Lillis, however, is especially deserving of praise, anchoring the series as she does; her “boring seventeen-year-old white girl” could quite easily have been just that, and at times almost is. Only Lillis’ quiet charisma and awkward affect save the series from itself: much as the “superpowers as mental illness” metaphor could’ve been trite, Lillis’ performance affords that framework a depth it might have otherwise lacked. Between I Am Not Okay With This and her smaller role in (the admittedly superior) Sharp Objects, Lillis is fast developing a talent for playing characters struggling with mental health issues.

Otherwise, though, how much you enjoy I Am Not Okay With This will depend on how much patience you have for that sense of familiarity. Some will call it derivative, and they’d be right to, because it unashamedly is. Indeed, where I Am Not Okay With This falters is when it commits too strongly to its most recognisable elements, without even a hint of self-awareness – that its quirky teens aren’t just into vinyl and cassettes but also VHS tapes would feel like a parody if it weren’t played entirely straight. (The only bad performance – indeed, really the only actively bad part of the series at all – comes from Sophia Tatum, who’s so excessive and overwrought as archetypical bad-girl Jenny Tuffield that she feels like a parody because she plays the character entirely straight.) Occasionally, there’s space for something a little new – the obligatory “I was only saying those hurtful things to activate your powers” scene, a staple of the genre, impacts the characters’ long-term relationship rather than being shrugged off – but for the most part, I Am Not Okay With This has very little interest in subverting or interrogating the archetypes it’s built from.

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More than anything else, though, I Am Not Okay With This put me in mind of another Netflix Original: Daybreak.

Stylistically, I Am Not Okay With This shares considerably less with Daybreak than it does other programmes, and suggesting the latter was an influence on the former would surely be a stretch. Still, there are certain similarities between them, and there’s a sense that they run parallel to one another: both are adapted from popular graphic novels, focusing on teenagers in a supernatural milieu (in this case, it’s post-zombie apocalypse) with a broadly similar soundtrack, use of voiceover narration, and an obvious debt to the 1980s. Beyond the material links one might draw, though, is the fact that Daybreak feels familiar too – the latest in a long line of stories with essentially the same premise.

It should be stressed that Daybreak was not always a particularly good television programme. It was often frustrating, consistently inconsistent, and had a litany of easily highlighted flaws. In fact, it’d be hard to argue with someone who preferred I Am Not Okay With This, which is – by plenty of different metrics, some more meaningful than others – probably actually the better programme.

Crucially, though, what set Daybreak apart from I Am Not Okay With This was a far greater level of self-awareness, a willingness to break from and subvert its formula, and the conviction to take a risk. One episode is structured as a Samurai movie homage, while the next is an ostentatiously experimental dream sequence that climaxes with a performance by an all-female Latina Morrissey cover band; the next episode is wildly scaled back in contrast, with only two cast members and set in one location, while the finale has no dialogue for the first twenty minutes. By contrast, the closest I Am Not Okay With This comes to anything remotely similar is altering the title card to I Am Not Okay With This at the top of one episode. For all that I Am Not Okay With This might have been the more polished series, Daybreak’s rough edges, part and parcel with its creativity and flourish, made it an altogether more memorable and compelling piece of television. It was a good show that, with time, might have gone on to be great.

Daybreak was cancelled in mid-December, not even a full two months after its October premier. I suspect I was one of maybe five people to be sad about that: it didn’t even generate the otherwise traditional slew of petitions and protests we’ve come to expect when Netflix cancels something. There’s no word yet as to whether I Am Not Okay With This will receive a second series, but it seems a sure bet.

It isn’t, of course, that television shows copying other, more successful predecessors is a new phenomenon – take a look at essentially any police procedural. If The End of the F***ing World had been successful a decade ago, something similar likely would’ve followed in some form or another. But I Am Not Okay With This feels different, borne not of the (genuine and valid) creative instinct to know who to steal from, but a calculated set of decisions informed by closely monitored user data. As Alison Herman at The Ringer points out, ‘Teen-Driven Supernatural Stories With a Black Comic Streak’ is surely one of Netflix’s thousands of microtargeted ‘taste communities’. As much as it serves as a reminder of its predecessors, I Am Not Okay With This feels like a glimpse into a future where algorithms (and the profit incentive of a heavily-in-debt streaming service) dictates what all television looks like, on a scale unlike what’s come before.

Yes, I Am Not Okay With This is entertaining and watchable, but it’s also been very precisely manufactured to iron out all the wrinkles. If it starts to crowd out the messy, the inconsistent, the different and still-developing – all the things that television is supposed to be – then I’m not okay with that.


Exclusive Interview – Alex Lawther on The End of the F***ing World

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

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For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.

I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.

More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.

The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.

It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.

Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast, surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.

The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as).  As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.

But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.

And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.

So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.

Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Film Review | The Two Popes (2019)

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In its weakest moments, The Two Popes treats Benedict as an aberration, an interruption that needed to be corrected by Francis – at times, the affection felt towards the current Bishop of Rome risks tending towards the hagiographic.

And yet The Two Popes clearly aspires to a more complicated narrative. Central to this story are the sexual abuse cases that came to light towards the end of Benedict’s papacy. It’s a fraught subject, and The Two Popes is necessarily precise in approach – the careful levity of McCarten’s script is easy to appreciate, conscious in how it threads the needle between this and its otherwise gentle humour, never quite polemic or farce.

I am really, really pleased with this review. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to bring myself to write something properly, for a myriad of boring reasons, but here I really managed to break that writer’s block. Lots of half-completed drafts cluttering up my desktop at the moment, but this, thankfully, is not one of them.

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Russian Doll is the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019

russian doll netflix review natasha lyonne leslye headland amy poehler greta lee yul vasquez charlie barnett elizabeth ashley jamie babbit chloe sevigny

The immediate reaction when you hear about Russian Doll is “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Groundhog Day?” – or, indeed, “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Happy Death Day?” – but this latest Netflix offering isn’t as derivative as that first impression might suggest. Working within a premise that’s fast becoming a genre unto itself, Russian Doll has a genuinely impressive capacity to surprise – most obviously in the fact that it’s become an early contender for the best show of 2019.

Let’s start, as the show does, with Natasha Lyonne – indeed, in a sense Russian Doll begins and ends with Lyonne, who’s not only star but also co-creator, frequent writer, and director of the stellar finale. If any show could be described as a star vehicle, it’s this one; it’s difficult to think of a recent programme that achieves as much on the strength of its lead performance as Russian Doll does. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman caught in an endless (and, yes, Groundhog Day-esque) loop, dying and reliving the same night over and over again – the night of her 36th birthday party. Lyonne is caustic and abrasive as Nadia, but deeply, deeply funny; Russian Doll delights in her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, as well it should. (A whole article could be written specifically to celebrate the way Lyonne pronounces “cockroach”, enunciating it as a three-syllable word.) There’s a certain clomping psychicality to her performance too, an awareness of motion and body language that anchors the character with a certain leaden weariness: it’s obvious that Nadia is carrying something with her as she moves through each successive loop.

The first three episodes of Russian Doll revolve more or less entirely around Nadia, an exercise in establishing a premise and pushing its boundaries (although the first episode does include a vital link to the second half of the series). It’s a testament to the skill of all involved that this doesn’t feel like a show spinning its wheels right out of the gate – Russian Doll even manages to avoid the characteristic pacing problems Netflix shows so often suffer from. No, those first four episodes are a necessary piece of groundwork, and an excellent showcase for Lyonne’s knack for physical comedy; an extended sequence of Nadia trying and failing to go down the stairs safely is one of Russian Dolls best recurring jokes. (One of Russian Doll’s less obvious strengths, in fact, is a keen awareness of repetition as a comedy tool – of both its potential and how best to use it.) It all adds up to four episodes of television that are genuinely very funny, if not necessarily something that would be remembered as one of 2019’s standouts.

It’s the third episode cliffhanger, though, where Russian Doll really starts to sing.

russian doll netflix natasha lyonne nadia vulvokov charlie barnett alan zaveri leslye headland the way out ariadne a warm body alan's routine elevator lift cliffhanger

Within a premise like Russian Doll’s, the supporting cast could very easily be thankless roles – resetting with each loop, stuck repeating different variations on the same lines over and over. It’s worth noting the quiet, understated skill of the wider supporting cast that Russian Doll largely avoids this; within relatively little televisual real estate, as it were, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley and Yul Vazquez, amongst others, are all able to quickly define their larger than life roles.

Nonetheless, though, one of Russian Doll’s key twists on the familiar premise is in giving Nadia a companion in her repetitions – Charlie Barnett plays Alan Zaveri, also continually dying and reliving a single night. Introduced at the close of the show’s fourth episode, Alan is, in many ways, the perfect foil to Nadia; Barnett gives a mannered, controlled performance as an individual who’s so insecure and nervous he seeks refuge in the strict routine of the loop. Alan is just as neurotic as Nadia, ultimately, it just manifests in different ways. Lyonne and Barnett complement one another well – it’d be dull to suggest that a female character’s story becomes more interesting with the addition of a male one, but that’s not what’s happening here anyway. No, it’s simply the case that giving a talented performer a similarly talented foil elevates the show – a rising tide lifts all ships, in this case.

The relationship between Nadia and Alan is ultimately key to Russian Doll’s spiky story of self-destruction, the heart of a character study that’s like a matryoshka doll in more ways than one. Across the latter half of the series, Russian Doll gradually pares back the layers of its lead characters as it moves from dark comedy to existential angst – there’s a rising intensity that comes with it, a result of touchingly introspective reflection. In a finale with more than one impressive directorial flourish, Russian Doll makes a bold declaration of intent; a move away from Nadia and Alan’s tragically isolated solipsism at the beginning of their loops, and towards a quiet embrace of what they share. At the heart of this Russian doll, there’s not one person, but two – and that makes things better, a little bit.

And with that, Russian Doll becomes the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019.


My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

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Safe’s story of paranoia and secrecy does an impressive job of standing out in a crowded genre

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What’s also notable, though, is the way Safe treats its characters. It’s a given in a crime drama like this that, at some point or another, each member of the supporting cast will become a prime suspect; Safe, for its part, moves the lens of suspicion from character to character in subtle, understated ways. It’s not dictated simply – or, maybe more accurately, it’s not dictated only – by the momentum of the plot, but often lead just as much by the camera itself, even when not addressed by the dialogue. Note how the camera focuses on Pete Mayfield’s car, after it’s revealed that not only has DC Emma Castle been investigating Pete, but that her former partner was killed in a hit-and run; the implication being, then, that Pete was the reckless driver in question.

Doubt is part of the text of the programme, and no one is free from it; Safe even positions Jenny herself as a figure of suspicion in at one point. It’s a clever solution to a problem that’s been endemic to the genre; while such dramas focus on a missing child, the child themselves is always defined by their absence, more an idea than a character in their own right. Safe uses the audience’s detachment from Jenny, and how little they know about her, to evoke a genuine uncertainty – one that neatly feeds into the drama’s wider concerns.

Man, this one was a difficult one to write. Genuinely, I can’t think of a single piece I’ve ever written that was harder to physically carve out of me, not for as long as I’ve been writing. I don’t think that – not effort, exactly, but it sounds less pretentious than “struggle” – is obvious on the page, because I don’t actually think that, in the end, it was a particularly good article. It was, you know, fin.

But! The difficulty came from, well, I’m not even entirely sure where. We’ll describe it as my mood, I suppose. All the “you can’t write” insecurities that we all have (or at least everyone says they have) just collapsed in on me at once right in the middle of this one. Literally, actually, the hardest part was the second half of the article. Eventually, I managed to get it done, though not after… well, a lot of thought and stress.

The moral of the story, of course, is that all these doubts are unfounded and I’m actually wonderful. No, I jest. When I actually did manage to fix it it was only because I just sat and ploughed through it (after several days of thought and space to calm down) – the real moral, I suppose, is that the only way to write is to write. Or something less twee, I dunno, there isn’t really a moral.

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Why wasn’t Electric Dreams as popular as Black Mirror?

electric dreams black mirror amazon netflix channel 4 charlie brooker

In almost every respect, Electric Dreams seems poised as a response to Black Mirror. There are surface similarities, obviously – both are high concept science fiction anthology programmes, after all – but it’s more illustrative to look at who was behind Electric Dreams; when you consider that it was co-produced by Amazon and Channel 4, the intent becomes obvious. Both had reason to want a drama similar to Black Mirror – Amazon to compete with Netflix, and Channel 4, as the latter programme’s original home before it was moved to Netflix, as a replacement.

In the lead up to Electric Dreams’ release, it seemed more than likely that the series would see equivalent success to Black Mirror. And yet, ultimately, Electric Dreams failed to replicate the success of Black Mirror. Which begs the question: why?

I was generally pretty fond of Electric Dreams, if admittedly frustrated by a lot of it. Across the ten episodes of its first season, there were some genuinely quite impressive hours of television; I think if I were inclined to isolate one particular flaw above all others, though, it’d be that sometimes Electric Dreams felt a little scared of subtlety and ambiguity. There were a couple of different episodes where the conclusion of the episode went to great lengths to explain things as much as possible, often unnecessarily, and sometimes to the detriment of the piece as a whole.

Still, though, there was a lot to like from Electric Dreams – it assembled some really quite impressive creative talents, arguably functioning better as an anthology series in that regard than Black Mirror. And yet Black Mirror still remained the more popular series, with Electric Dreams seemingly struggling to make much of an impact. This article, then, was an attempt to get to grips with that.

As an article, it’s probably not as analytical as it should be, nor evidence-based enough – really, what I needed was a lot of statistics and viewer data, and probably quotes from lots of different reviewers, AI numbers, that sort of thing. I did not have that. What it ended up as, then, was some speculation as to why Electric Dreams didn’t quite work in the UK. Even then, mind you, I might not have been correct in that speculation – just typing this up now it occurred to me that Electric Dreams might have been “too sci-fi” in a way that Black Mirror isn’t, for lack of a better way of putting it. So who knows really.

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In season 2, Jessica Jones became more of a superhero show – but that’s not exactly a good thing

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No, Kilgrave – and, indeed, the first season of Jessica Jones as a whole – worked because there was a certain truth to him. The character served as part of Jessica Jones’ exploration of rape culture, of pervasive and insidious attitudes that can be observed in real life. A lot of the drama and tension comes from the fact that audiences are familiar with him, and those like him, both on a diegetic and extra-diegetic level; there’s something recognisable about Kilgrave, something that maps onto real life experiences.

Across season 2, we follow our eponymous hero as she’s drawn deeper and deeper into a convoluted conspiracy, uncovering information about the shady organisation that are responsible for her powers. It’s something that Jessica Jones isn’t particularly well suited to: the conspiracy angle is weak, and the return of a key character from Jessica’s past marks a genre shift that the show can’t sustain. In essence, it’s because little of this is analogous to real experiences. A huge amount of the strength of Jessica Jones previously came from its ability to use the trappings of the superhero genre to tell a story about trauma and surviving abuse; here, it’s weighed down by old tropes and familiar archetypes. Where the fantasy angle of Kilgrave’s powers was used to great effect to tell a story about genuine human experiences, that’s not the case in season 2.

Very heavy spoilers for Jessica Jones series 2 here, particularly after episode six – wouldn’t recommend reading it until you’ve seen the whole season, personally.

Not sure I quite got this article right – often the way when you’re writing quickly to meet a deadline, moreso after having binge-watched something. (One day, I should write about my growing disdain for binge-watching television programmes. It’s often a necessary evil of my job – gotta get the clicks within the optimal search hours – but I do think that television criticism, and actually in a broader sense television viewing, suffers from binge-watching.)

Anyway, though, this article. It perhaps might have been better titled “Jessica Jones loses sight of human experiences”, or words to that effect. In short, my feelings are that the best parts of Jessica Jones season 1 were the moments when it was least like a superhero show – when it reflected real life, even if only in an allegorical sense. The fact that it’s increasingly like a fairly over-the-top and convoluted superhero show in S2 was a bit disappointing – it felt like a genre shift in a show that didn’t need one. (Again, I have fairly complex thoughts on “superhero” as a genre definition, but that’s for another time.)

Still! I hope you like this article – or, if not the article itself, at least the basic gist of the ideas that are going on within it. Let me know in the comments below what you think!

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