This week’s edition of Radio Times lists the “Top 50 Shows To Watch Now”. This list is made up of programmes available on catch up services both terrestrial and satellite and those available on subscription streaming services. I pay for Amazon Prime Instant Video, it was foisted upon me as part of my longstanding Love Film subscription when Amazon bought the company. I use the Love Film part frequently (rental DVDs) but have only watched a couple of films on Prime. I can access this on a rarely used Playstation 3 but hardly ever do so as it always wants to update the system every time I switch it on and it’s just easier to watch something on TV. However, inspired by this Top 50 I thought I’d catch the first episodes of a couple of series from this list, currently only available in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video. These were the #31 show “The Man In The High Castle” and the #2 on the list “Transparent” (now into its second series). I had heard good things about both of these productions but let’s face it, like most of us (apart from the very young or very media-savvy) I couldn’t help but think it they were any good they’d be on real telly…..right?
It has been quite hard to escape “The Man In The High Castle” as Amazon seems to have embarked on probably their biggest ever original series advertising campaign. There have been glossy ads on TV and in the press which suggest a slick alternate history where the Nazis had won the war, often featuring a jackbooted Rufus Sewell. Based on a story by Sci-Fi legend Philip K Dick I had very high hopes.
First episodes can be difficult for the viewer. A lot has to be established, especially here where the ramifications of this post-war world have to be considered before the drama kicks in. It’s 1962 and the USA has been partitioned into the Greater Nazi Reich, which incorporates New York and the Japanese Pacific States which contains San Francisco, both starting places for the lead characters in this series opener. There’s a Neutral Zone between and although not much was made of this Washington DC appears to have been destroyed in the H-Bomb which ended hostilities. It’s a peaceful is somewhat grim co-habitation – both places look Gotham-esque, but with Hitler increasingly feeble and his less pro-Japanese potential successors in the background things could once again get ugly.
Lead characters Joe and Juliana both find themselves separately being drawn into the work of the Resistance. This is an America where torture is used freely and art is considered degenerate and Anti-Semitism is rife, so there is much dramatic potential in this creation.
It all sounds exciting but I get the feeling that these potentially thrilling plot threads are going to be developed slowly. I must admit I was expecting something along the lines of Tony Schumacher’s novels “The Darkest Hour” and “The British Lion” which have a similar premise in the immediate post-war years. I don’t know if the 60’s setting will be more or less exciting – the distance from the end of the war could give it an exciting dimension. There was even the suggestion of a conspiracy theory that the Allies won the war. It would be interesting to see which of these many potential plot threads are developed, which I would find out if I watched the rest of the series, which I wouldn’t rule out, but don’t feel the need to binge on.
One of the downsides of this form of viewing is that many people will know what will happen because they are ahead of you in their viewing- I don’t really like this. Perhaps I yearn for the days when there were only four channels and if something mind-blowing was shown absolutely everyone was talking about it. Nowadays, a conversation about television often gets blank looks.
Onto “Transparent” – I watched the pilot half-hour episode which was greeted so positively that Amazon went on to commission a series. There was considerable sex and nudity so this might have accounted for some of the positive reaction but to me it seemed a little old-fashioned. It reminded me of the excellent Alan Ball Series of the early 2000’s “Six Feet Under” which seemed ground-breaking in its time, but probably now less so. The characters here were equally flawed, but unlike “Six Feet Under” on the evidence of this first episode were not likeable, apart from Dad (played by Jeffrey Tambor) who arranges a dinner with his three children to come out to them as transgender. Once again I’m judging a series solely on its first episode (but given the vast plethora of what to watch out there this is what we are all increasingly having to do) but I’m not sure I would warm to this. As main character Morton/Maura says; “I don’t know how I raised three people who can’t see beyond themselves” it makes me wonder whether ultimately this show will have much heart.
No doubt there will be important, worthwhile issues raised and the cast does contain (as Morton’s ex-wife) Judith Light who was the best thing in the reboot of “Dallas” but I’m not at this stage convinced. The UK has a very good record of making shows which deal with similar issues. Channel 4’s 2015 series “Cucumber” explored issues of gender and sexuality with both honesty and drama and BBC 2 aired a very likeable comedy series “Boy Meets Girl” which featured transgender actress Rebecca Root as the main character. The American HBO series “Looking” was an example of a series not afraid to tackle diversity (and like “Cucumber” could be explicit) and yet had an endearing warmth that like “Boy Meets Girl” and “Cucumber” kept me tuning in. I’m not convinced I can bother with updating my system to watch any more “Transparent” – but once again I’m not ruling it out. Are there any Amazon watchers out there who have more to say on these programmes?
– for both shows- If later episodes get me rethinking this rating I’ll let you know
The Man In The High Castle (2015) and Transparent (2014) are both free to watch with an Amazon Prime Instant Video Subscription.