Month: June 2016

The Spies Next Door

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are a suburban couple in eighties America. They help their children with the homework, they get ice-cream together, they even bake brownies for new neighbours – so really, they’re just your average, All-American husband and wife, except they’re not. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are trained, skilled and deadly KGB agents who work for the Soviet Union during the Cold War while leading deep-rooted lives in Washington DC. Oh, and remember the new neighbour who they baked brownies for? He’s Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counter-intelligence agent.

The Americans traces the tumultuous life and times of the Jenningses as they are torn between serving their country, and themselves. What makes the series absolutely fascinating to watch, is the fact that it’s set in the eighties. Not only was it a time of intense political intrigue, but also a time when supercomputers, location tracking bugs and cars that could talk had no potential to exist. The spy games that the couple play involve good old disguises (wigs included), kidnapping, morse code, skin burning chemicals and the occasional sexual favour. A lot about The Americans is reminiscent of Homeland, especially in the ways that the past and the present collide on screen, but The Americans is definitely on the more dramatic, for it is as much about a war, as it is about marriage, and at times, family. The Jennings’ marriage was a match that was made in the upper echelons of the Soviet spy directorate, but despite the great masquerade of it all, there are moments of genuine tenderness and love that seep through their secret lives.

The creator of the show, Joe Weisberg, interestingly, is a former CIA agent. A lot of the show’s story line is based on the stories and experiences that he collected during his time there, as well as a lot of research. The Americans is excellent television, not only because of its fast, almost frenzied pace, but also because despite the surreal plot line, it captures human frailty in a manner so accurate, that it is painful. The leads, Keri Rusell is extraordinary as Elizabeth Jennings, the spy capable of breaking a man’s ribcage with her bare arms, but is still capable of being outraged by the fact that her 13 year old daughter bought underwear without her. Matthew Rhys is also brilliant as Phillip Jennings, the surprisingly soft-hearted agent who is constantly torn between serving his motherland and going against everything he was taught to believe in, and make his blissful false life, real.

What I found most enjoyable about The Americans was how it almost forces the viewer to root for Elizabeth and Phillip, despite the fact that they’re the bad guys. The fact that you want two Soviet spies to somehow wrangle themselves out of the dangerous situation they (willingly) got themselves in and just happily ever after with their two kids is a solid triumph on part of the show. It will even have you believe that spies, on most days, are just like us.

{Season 4 of The Americans is presently being telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

What’s Eating You?

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’ve become my grandmother lately. Every evening about 8.40 PM, I sit squarely in the living room, clutching on to the remote to make sure that no one else can take control of the screen. I announce often (and in irrelevant ways) to anyone who so much as passes by that I’ll be watching television from 9 PM to 10 PM. You can join me, of course, but there will be no changing the channel. Not while Masterchef Australia is on.

India’s favourite western cooking show is back along with its much loved judges, Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris. I say with confidence that no other reality cooking competition has come close to elevating cooking into an impassioned spectator sport the way Masterchef Australia has. No other cooking show boasts of the staggering talent (of both participants and guest judges) that Masterchef Australia does, either.

This season, for example, only four weeks have passed, but we’ve already seen participants come out with exorbitant desserts, beautifully plated salads, meats cooked in methods that are impossible to pronounce, and dishes that will have you questioning how they still call themselves ‘amateur’. We’ve also seen the terrifying Marco Pierre White (the youngest chef to clip three Michelin stars to his belt) take participants through challenges and bark orders at them as they sweated it out in commercial restaurant kitchens preparing bulk amounts of fine food. This week, food goddess Nigella Lawson came on to the show, sending participants, judges and the viewers into a tizzy.

The contest is designed in such a way that two participants are eliminated every week, and each time a participant comes up for elimination, there is a dramatic sit down with them where the judges ask – What does this competition mean to you? What does cooking mean to you?
While this exercise is mostly carried out for the theatrics, it really is incredible to see the raw passion in some of the contestants’ answers. This is my life, they say. I can’t see myself doing anything else. When you watch the seriousness with which the contestants approach this question, you ask yourself – Isn’t it just food?

The answer is in Netflix’s excellent documentary show, Chef’s Table. Chef’s Table traces the journey of some of the greatest modern chefs of our time, including Massimo Bottura, Grant Achatz, Magnus Nilsson, Dan Barber and Gaggan Anand. These are chefs who have changed the way food is thought of, seen, presented, and eaten. The documentary traces their beginnings, and draws the viewer into the present day where they are changing the discourse about food. The chefs themselves talk about their inspiration, the ways they drew strength when faced with failure and criticism, and what pushed them to be where they are today. The episode with Gaggan Anand in particular I found compelling for obvious reasons – I was able to understand better because of the Indian connection.

Gaggan now heads a successful restaurant named after himself in Bangkok, a restaurant that consistently has been featured in the list of the Top 50 restaurants in the world, and was named Asia’s best restaurant in 2014, which is no mean feat for a restaurant that serves Indian food, a cuisine associated with quick comfort food.

In the episode, Gaggan recalls a time when he lost his job, despite being one of the most promising chefs in the country, and found himself making and delivering food for Rs. 15 to Pizza Hut employees. He meets small success a while after, and just when you think he’s doing well, political situations push him out of business, and he loses his brother. When you’re watching it, you wonder, how did he ever manage to push himself to where he is now? When you’re pushed so hard in to the corner”, he says, “You explode”. The documentary then shifts to his triumphs, the night he won the best restaurant in Asia award, the culmination of his sweat, the overwhelming emotion in his voice when he says he’s lived a dream, and that’s when you realize, it’s never just food.

{Masterchef Australia is on Star World HD and Chef’s Table is on Netflix}

Sense Of An Ending

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

There is a theory that is often talked about in Behavioural Economics, one that was born out of the research carried out by eminent economists Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman, called the “Peak End” theory. What the theory propounds is that our memories of an event, or an experience are not formed based on the entire duration of said event or experience, rather it is based on specific, intense, moments, or the highlights of it. If, for example, a somewhat dull episode of a television series finishes with a cracking revelation, or a complete twist in events, you’re more likely to remember it as a great episode for that revelation or twist, rather than a mediocre episode made better with a good ending.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the reason why I’ve enjoyed the Game of Thrones franchise as much as I have been, is because of the peak-end theory. The clarity with which I can recall the shock value of the scenes in the first season’s finale where Ned Stark (Sean Bean), who seemed to be a core protagonist, dies an ugly, untimely death, as well as the moment that Danerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) emerges from the fires, naked, holding her baby dragons, far surpass my memory of other events which took place that season. My memories of the other seasons too, are essentially a combination of key turns in the story and particularly gruesome deaths – like a highlight reel.

The sixth season though, has put the peak-end theory to rest for me. Six episodes have come out so far, marking half the season complete, and every episode has had stunning revelations, and every episode plays like a highlight reel. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) rises from the dead after a mystical haircut performed by the Red Priestess Melisandre (Carice Van Houten). Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), after five and three quarter seasons, finally runs into some good luck and not only escapes the Boltons, but also gets the powerful Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) on her side, and is reunited with her half brother at The Wall. Danerys rounds up an entire Dothraki army, at Vaes Dothrak after setting the local Khals on fire, and inspires her new Khalasar to be completely on her side to take over Westeros, with a stirring speech (the ferocious dragon she was sitting on might have helped, too). Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), bruised and battered by the Boltons has managed to escape as well, and is now back home at the Iron Islands, helping his sister become the rightful leader of their people, after their father was murdered unceremoniously by a mysterious uncle.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has quit the Faceless men (after wasting an an entire season) and looks to reclaim her identity. Bran Stark (Isaac Wright) has made an important comeback, and his abilities to warg, or see into the past, have evolved to the point where he can now interact with the past, thereby affecting the future, all of which bring in terrifying possibilities.

Back in King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is plotting her revenge against the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) and the Faith Militant which she foolishly empowered, but doesn’t seem to catch a break, as he manages to convert her daughter-in-law, Margery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), and consequently, her son Tommen (Dean- Charles Chapman), the King, into the Faith. Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), on the other hand, has been fired as the King’s Hand, and must set aside his ego, and instead, look to quell the rising rebellions against the Lannisters.

The show thus far has not left any room for the audience to catch their collective breath. Every episode makes you think, What now? What next?, and even before you can contemplate an answer, the show gives it to you, along with an entirely new question. It’s doubly exciting because the book on which this season is based on, The Winds of Winter, hasn’t been released by GRR Martin. It is also evident that the show makers have detoured completely from the story line that the book might have adopted (with the blessings of Martin, of course). The official announcement from the producers said that the show would only have eight seasons in total, and given that we’re already in the sixth, there should be some sense of an ending on the horizon, but the way the show is moving now, it feels like it’s only the beginning.

{Game of Thrones is on Star World HD every Tuesday, and is also available on the Hot Star app}