Espionage & Spies

Ugly Reflections

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Black Mirror isn’t a television series as much as it is an anthology. The episodes are independent stories, so there’s no requirement of watching them in order. They are, however, tied together by the common theme of technology, and the consequences of technology. The first and second season which was written for and broadcast by UK’s Channel 4, released in 2011 and 2013 respectively, with three hour long episodes each. The third season, produced by Netflix, released on the 24th of this month, with six episodes – six different, terrifying stories of how our dependent relationships with technology could alter our lives, and the world.

Each episode takes on a different genre – the first episode, Nosedive, is an excellent satire based on our fixation with social media and is set in a pastel coloured, alternate future (or near future, depending on how you look at it). In this world, every social interaction, whether it’s getting into a cab or buying coffee, involves you being rated out of 5, which in turn shapes your rating as a person. Permanently cheerful and ridiculously good-looking 4.5s get treated with extra care, gain access to privileged spaces, and can claim their world as their oyster. The lesser ranked 3.5s and below – the ones who speak unpleasantly, the ones who don’t care for appearances, are categorized as low lives who for whom facilities are shut off. Nosedive narrates the story of a young woman who gives all she has into climbing up the ratings ladder so that she can move into a plush housing colony.

The second episode, Playtest, tells the story of a somewhat dull American traveler who agrees to test out a virtual reality game for quick money. It’s a fun episode to watch, but is among the weaker episodes in the anthology, with too many predictable, cheesy horror movie tropes and a rather ineffective twist in the end. The similarly themed fifth episode, Men Against Fire, which deals with augmented reality and tells the story of trigger happy soldiers whose brains are implanted with chips that make them see deformed zombies instead of human enemies, isn’t the most impressive either. While the moral lesson is necessary, the episode feels bloated, and doesn’t connect.

The third (Shut Up And Dance) and the sixth (Hated In The Nation) episodes are the standouts of the season. Hated In The Nation combines online bullying with drone technology with a classic whodunit police investigation, resulting the most riveting and well taken 90 minutes of television that you’d have seen in a while. Shut Up And Dance is an especially disturbing story of how a 19 year old, soft-spoken waiter in a café, and a married 40 year old are forced to come together as an unlikely tag team who have to complete terrible tasks when a mysterious hacker gets hold of the secrets of their computers and threatens to leak it to the world. It is poignant, gripping, upsetting and has an ending that lingers long after the episode finishes.

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I thought the fourth episode was too eh-meh to write about, so here’s a photo.

Black Mirror, as a series can be especially bizarre when you’re watching it for the first time, and this third season hasn’t been consistent with the quality of its episodes. However, if you’re even slightly fascinated by the impact that technology has on our lives, Black Mirror is a series you don’t want to miss.

{The first three seasons of Black Mirror are currently streaming on Netflix}

 

Good Things, Small Packages

{First published in The Hindu Metroplus}

My love for the miniseries format is one that has been well documented in this space. I cannot get enough of them, and it isn’t just the low commitment that it requires which draws me, again and again, back to them. A well made mini-series is the perfect hybrid of film, and serial episodes. It combines the well defined storyline of a movie with the steady, more fulfilling pace of storytelling that multiple episodes allow. The slow burn of the miniseries allows characters to shine and for the audience to develop a greater understanding of, and attachment with them, making the format perfect for novel adaptations. Olive Kitteridge, the Emmy award winning miniseries about a cynical American schoolteacher, was based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout. The recently released and phenomenally successful miniseries, The Night Manager, was adapted from the novel of the same name that was written by the master of espionage, John Le Carre. Both Olive Kitteridge and The Night Manager, with their intense screenplay and masterful acting performances, were an accomplishment in televised storytelling.

Another miniseries that I couldn’t stop raving about, was Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall was also named after the novel (by Hilary Mantel) whose story it took on, but the story was essentially a dramatised version of actual events which took place in the 16th Century, known as “The King’s Great Matter”, which today stands immortalised by the Traitor’s Gate in the Tower of London. People vs OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story, is another miniseries which took on a real life incident: the much publicised trial of OJ Simpson, a sports superstar and actor, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and a restaurant waiter, Ron Goldman.

All these series had actors of immense calibre put together on the same screen, for the miniseries format allows them to explore stronger, deeper characters with more nuance, and directors to take on stories that are more complex and can’t possibly contained in a time frame of a few hours. People vs OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story managed to lure in the likes of John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., and David Schwimmer. The Night Manager had Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston’s portrayal of the spy, Jonathan Pine was so successful that it sparked rumours across the United Kingdom of him being cast as the next James Bond. Wolf Hall had Mark Rylance, (who went on to star in Spielberg’s celebrated film, Bridge of Spies, and win an Academy award for it) and Damian Lewis. The more recently released thriller miniseries about an immigrant who is jailed for the murder of a girl in New York City, “The Night Of” was written by Steve Zaillan, who has worked on movies like The Schindler’s List, and Gangs of New York, among others.

For all their merits and the hype surrounding them through all these years – Meryl Streep and Al Pacino made a miniseries way back in 2003 called Angels in America for HBO – the miniseries is only now finding its way into Indian Television. If you don’t have the time for a full fledged television series and all its characters, I recommend you embrace the miniseries with both your arms (and your legs). It’s the best way to experience not only modern television, but the power that a good story can have over you.

{People vs OJ Simpson, The Night Of are available on HotStar. Angels in America premieres today, August 6th on Star World Premiere HD}

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}

Tinker Tailor Manager Spy

{Previously Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

A few weeks ago, I’d written about the first episode and the general buzz surrounding BBC’s new, greatly hyped and exorbitant production of John Le Carre’s celebrated spy novel, The Night Manager. The relentlessly excellent series wrapped up last week, ending the roller coaster ride of emotion and the mini heart attacks that viewers underwent each time they saw an episode.

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is the night manager at The Nefertiti hotel in Egypt. One night, the girlfriend of the most powerful man in Cairo gives him access to information about an arms deal that her boyfriend’s family is in the middle of with one Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a British industrialist who she calls “the worst man in the world”, which could potentially alter the fate of the political situation in Egypt. Pine alerts the British embassy about the deal, and does all that he can to protect her, but fails. The British Embassy, with the exception of one person, Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) becomes conspicuously silent, and Sophie is forced to come back to the hotel, where she dies a gruesome death. Pine, who is now traumatised by the series of events, takes up a new job as a manager in a ski resort in picturesque town in Switzerland, where he meets Richard Roper again.
The wounds reopen, and Pine contacts Angela Burr again. We learn that she is a British enforcement agent who has been trying to nab Roper and his illegal weapon deals her entire career, but with little support because Roper has the entire British intelligence in his back pocket. She asks him if he would be willing to become, and to commit to become a spy for her, and infiltrate Roper’s ranks, gain his trust and ultimately, expose him. Pine agrees, setting off a motion of events which form the series.

Tom Hiddleston is nothing short of delicious as Jonathan Pine, the spy who blazes his way up Roper’s ranks with a combination of his sort of self-deprecating “Who, me?” charm, and his surprising capability and tolerance for brutality. During the time the series was aired, there was a great deal of talk about Tom Hiddleston being the most obvious candidate for the next James Bond – a sentiment that I agreed to at the start of the series, and as the series progressed it felt like one that even the show’s makers shared – why else would Pine be made to order a Martini at a Casino?

Olivia Colman does even better as the unwavering, and very pregnant Angela Burr who is dogged in her pursuit of Roper despite all the odds (and the government) not being in her favour. Tom Hollander as Major “Corky” Corkoran, Roper’s sharp tongued right hand man, and Elizabeth Debicki as Roper’s ethereally beautiful girlfriend, Jed, are also stunning in their portrayals of their respective characters.

If you’ve read Le Carre’s novel, you’d know that Richard Roper is the kind of malevolent business man, who, after seeing little children choke and die from a gas bombing in a school in Kurdistan, starts peddling the chemical to his buyers. Hugh Laurie, during the promotions for the show, said that he had “impudently imagined” himself portraying Pine the spy, not Roper the arms dealer, because “loathed” the character. Laurie then said that he decided to play him anyway because “there is something intoxicating about someone who has put themselves beyond the bounds of laws, who has the confidence, the daring, the kind of madness.” I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve no doubt that Laurie’s Roper is much more terrifying than Le Carre’s.

Long Form James Bond

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The Night Manager, BBC’s newest and possibly most lavish production yet, begins in Cairo of January 2011. There is a sea of humanity assembled in Tahrir square protesting against their president, Hosni Mubarak. A casually dressed and impossibly good-looking white man emerges from the crowds, and nonchalantly weaves his way through the yelling, the stone throwing, the fireworks and the bullets to get to his workplace, The Nefertiti hotel, on the other side. It lasts all of thirty seconds, but it is enough to convince you that Tom Hiddleston, who plays this impossibly good-looking man by the name of Jonathan Pine, is the most obvious choice for the next James Bond.

Jonathan Pine is the night manager at the Nefertiti Hotel. He is quiet, polite to a fault and unabashedly English – there is a scene where he describes the weather to be “ghastly”. He knows his hotel and his guests inside out, but we don’t know much about him. His routine of taking calls and calming flustered guests down by offering them free cocktails is interrupted when a beautiful woman, Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), best known for being a very powerful (and very evil) man’s girlfriend casually asks him to have coffee with her. After having coffee, she, in an even more casual manner, slips some documents to Jonathan which have details of her boyfriend bulk purchasing weaponry from the good old United Kingdom. As it turns out, Freddie Hamid (the dastardly boyfriend) was trying to crush the uprising, and Sophie couldn’t stay silent anymore. Do what you have to, she tells Jonathan, and Jonathan being the dignified, respectable Englishman that he is, promptly takes the documents to the British embassy, after which he takes Sophie to a safe house. None of this really works for Jonathan. While the uprising succeeds, the British government, with the exception of one Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) has decided to ignore the information sent to them because even Governments can’t just doesn’t poke their nose into the affairs of Richard “The Worst Man In The World” Roper (played by the inimitable Hugh Laurie). Sophie is brutally murdered, and Jonathan moves to Switzerland. Four years later, Roper’s and Jonathan’s paths cross again, and this time, there will be revenge.

The Night Manager is based on the novel with the same name by the critically acclaimed Spy Novel specialist John Le Carre. The director has pushed the timeline of the original forward from 1993 to 2011, and has tinkered around with the characters and locations in a way which feels like he’s updated the story, as opposed to having changed it. The casting is perfect to the point where it feels like Le Carre wrote the novel with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in mind. The screenplay doesn’t merely hold your attention, it pins it down on all fours with iron clamps. It’s simply impossible to look away. The Night Manager is a miniseries, a genre of television which the BBC has become a champion of lately, consisting six episodes. The first episode had a record six million tune in, and it’s really about time you joined in on the fun.

2015 in Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s time for us to welcome the new year with family, friends, celebrations, and of course, somewhat pointless lists. So without further ado, here are my TV favourites from 2015 (in no particular order):

  • Empire – Empire is a musical soap opera about a Hip Hop mogul, and the lengths he’ll go to stay on top. It’s the television equivalent of the pizzas that have cheese stuffed in the crusts, the kind which oozes yellow, processed glory, on to your fingers. Yes it’s disgustingly over the top, and you can’t really tell people how much you enjoy it, although you know that they’d enjoy it just as much as you do when they eat it, I mean, watch it. {FX India}

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  • Better Call Saul – Better Call Saul was my favourite show this year. Yes, it’s a spin off of Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of recurring characters, but surprisingly, it has an entirely unique tone, and while one is occasionally reminded of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul stands on its own. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Wolf Hall – Wolf Hall is a literary mini series which was produced by the BBC. The cast and screenplay is splendid, and Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece comes alive over the course of 6, hour long episodes. I do hope that more show makers take the hint from Wolf Hall and make more mini series from literary classics – that way I don’t have to pretend like I’ve read them anymore.

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  • Game of Thrones – Dragons! Kings! Betrayals! Dragons! Death! Snow! Did I mention Dragons? The fifth season of the epic fantasy story came to an end this year, with a finale that shook the world, or at least, broke the internet. Game of Thrones is the show whose return I’m most looking forward to in 2016. {HBO}

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  • Daredevil – While I enjoyed both The Flash and Arrow, Daredevil takes the super hero genre of television to a whole new level, the way Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed the game for films. Netflix has come out with a winner, yet again, and there is no doubt that Daredevil is the benchmark for super hero television shows to come.

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  • Master of None – If you’re not socialising with your family, and have plenty of time in your hands this weekend, why not cosy up with the entire first season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy for all seasons? It’s one the most relatable shows I’ve watched on international television (and not just because Ansari hails from Tamil Nadu), and the perfect candidate for marathon viewing.

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  • Quantico – This is right on top of my list of unexpected favourites. I didn’t want to like it, I watched it with great prejudice but eventually gave in to the racy screenplay and exaggerated drama. The show is addictive, and Priyanka Chopra has made an assured debut into American television and proved that she is a bonafide star. The penultimate episode before the season finale, and the season finale itself were a tad frustrating and I’m hoping (against hope) that it sorts itself out when it comes back next year. {Star World}

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  • The Affair – One often talks about “mindless television” – The Affair is the opposite. It demands your attention in a manner that is unforgiving, and if you blink, you miss. The Affair follows a story of infidelity narrated through different perspectives, none of which are objective, and leaves it to the viewer to be the judge. I’m a chronic multi-tasker, but The Affair ensured that my attention only belonged to the screen. {FX India}

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  • Mr. Robot – A terrific and well researched show that goes into the psyche and life of hackers. Given the rising coverage with respect to the hacking group “Anonymous” in the mainstream news, Mr. Robot is an excellent way to better understand hacking, and how the right information in the wrong hands could potentially break the world as we know it. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Modern Family – It’s not from 2015, technically, but I have been watching it religiously, all year. I could never tire of this show, or it’s characters, and I am yet to find an episode I haven’t guffawed out loud in. A perennial favourite to end the list! {Star World}

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