Political

The Political Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The past week has been eventful, with two announcements that had us glued to our television sets, the first being the demonetization of the Rs. 500/- and Rs. 1,000/- notes, and the second being the majority of America’s public voting in Donald Trump to be the President of the United States, and the most powerful man in the free world.

Both were surprises, bombs, even, that were dropped on an unsuspecting public, leading to shock, awe and panic. Both these decisions, I am sure, also involved tense newsrooms and action behind the scenes – the kind that directors and writers try so hard to bring to life on screen. It’s hard to imagine exactly what could have happened in the halls of our Prime Minister’s office given the superficial, almost comical ways that high stakes Indian political scenarios are played out in our films and television. However, it is possible to visualize the amount of work, the tension and the nerves that took over political offices in the United States on Wednesday morning, thanks to the abundance of excellent film and television shows that give us an intimate look into the workings of their system.

The most comprehensive show when it comes to American politics, is undoubtedly, The West Wing. The show ran from 1999 to 2006, a true television classic, and is perhaps the prime reason behind Aaron Sorkin’s iconic status as a screenwriter today. The West Wing explores the trials and tribulations of the senior staff at the White House as they attempt to run the most powerful country in the world, while balancing a no-nonsense President who couldn’t care less about being liked and the ground realities at Washington. It’s fast paced, full of quotable lines, an enormous amount of fun to watch, and most importantly, an education in American politics.

Although the The West Wing is the first show that comes to mind (my mind, at the least) at the mention of American politics, it is a decade old now, and runs the risk of being ever so slightly irrelevant.

Many consider its successor to be the Netflix original (and smash hit), House of Cards. It must be said though, that House of Cards is practically a fantasy show in comparison to The West Wing. House of Cards traces the ambitions of Frank Underwood, a Congressman, and his wife, Claire, as they go on a no-holds-barred spree to do whatever it takes to get to the top. House of Cards is just as well written and snappy as The West Wing, but is also extraordinarily exaggerated. The West Wing’s pull lay in its realism. There are plenty of moments in House of Cards where you can’t help but wonder how absurd the scenarios are. Having said that, Donald Trump is America’s President-Elect, so I’m starting to question myself about the show’s farfetchedness.

Finally, it is hard to ignore Veep, the HBO production starring multiple Emmy award winner, Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Veep narrates the story of Selina Meyer, a former US Senator who becomes the Vice President after a failed campaign, and is constantly relegated to matters of unimportance. Veep is entertaining, witty as hell and sharply written. It is unfortunate though, that the one show which is focused on chronicling a woman’s effort to get to the top seat has to be classified as a comedy.

{The West Wing is on FX, Veep is on Star World Premiere HD, and House of Cards is on Netflix}

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.

black mirror season 3
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}

 

Royal Pains

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The lives of the British Monarchy have been the subject of endless fascination for generations. One would think they’ve no relevance given the times we live in, but the celebrity treatment of the Royals, which began with Princess Diana, has well and truly exploded today. Forget Prince William and the Duchess, Kate Middleton – even their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, are not spared from the constant public scrutiny of not just their behavior, but even their outfits. You’ve got to hand it to the Royals though, their public appearances are always so put together, so polished, so perfect, but the inner workings of their family are kept tantalizingly private. Occasionally a scandal breaks out, but the finer details are buried deep and stowed away, far, far away from the rest of us. Consequently, there’s a Royal rumour mill that never loses steam, and a slew of ‘inspired’ films and television series that try to offer some perspective on their lives.

the crown on netflix

The latest, and perhaps the most promising endeavor in this regard, is Netflix’s newest drama series, The Crown. What makes this series special, isn’t that it’s Netflix’s most expensive production yet (they seem to be topping their previous record for spending every three months now), or even that it is written by Peter Morgan, who was also the writer behind the 2006 film starring Dame Helen Mirren, The Queen, as well as Frost/Nixon. The Crown is special because, for the first time, the Royals seem to have approved of the show- Peter Morgan had revealed at a Press Conference that they were ‘very, very, aware’ of it, and that it might not be too long before Netflix manages to get the Queen’s opinion of it.

The Crown is a drama that seeks to explore the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the first season, which comprises ten episodes and releases in a few weeks, begins at the very beginning. The year is 1947, the second World War has just about come to an end, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) has been re-elected as Prime Minister, and Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) is getting married to Prince Philip (Matt Smith). In the middle of all this, King George VI (Jared Harris) is ailing – he is frequently coughing blood, which his faithful attenders dismiss as a symptom of “the cold”. It isn’t long before he discovers that it isn’t the cold, but cancer, and realizes that he must do all he can, while he can, to prepare his barely 25 years old daughter for the throne. The Crown explores the impact that the adherence to duty, to royal duty, has over family and relationships, and the immense burden that is placed on a young woman’s shoulders.

Claire Foy plays young Queen Elizabeth, which is interesting because this series would be the second time she’s playing an important English queen on television – she was spectacular as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, and her performance in The Crown doesn’t seem any different. Matt Smith is also wonderful as Prince Philip, a man who is caught between the boundless love he has for his young wife, and hating the monarch that she must become.

The Crown is the story of a Princess who became Queen, but make no mistake – it isn’t a fairytale.

{The Crown releases on Netflix on November 4th}

Diet Coke

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

There was a point in time while watching Narcos, when I had to pause and look up the events that were being played out on screen, just to see if they had actually happened for it all seemed so incredulous and unbelievable. Did Colombia really go through such a prolonged period of drug related violence? And did all the devastation really root from one man’s crazed ambition?

Narcos resurrects the life and times of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord whose business and political aspirations led to government unrest, assassinations, and overwhelming violence across the country, which lasted for most than a decade. Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is a smuggler from Colombia, who knows his way around the local officials who are impediments to his business. Each time he’s confronted, he gives them a choice – Plata (silver) or Plomo (lead, referring to the bullets in his gun), and the fear he invokes, coupled with the economic situation in Colombia, ensures that the officials’ choice is almost always Plata. It isn’t long before he controls certain transport routes in the country. Around the same time, Mateo “Cockroach” Moreno (Luis Gnecco), a chemist whose specialty is the manufacture of cocaine, comes into his acquaintance.

Cockroach wants Pablo’s help to sell coke in Colombia, but Pablo, the visionary, decides to take the business to the United States. The initial smuggling of coke which happens through blazers with hidden pockets, expands into one that requires shipments delivered through private planes, and before he knows what’s happening, Pablo finds himself with so much money that he has to bury it in fields, and even starts distributing it to the poor. Pablo also takes the initiative to form the Medellin cartel, consisting two other important players in the drug business – the Ochoa family, and Gonzalo “The Mexican” Gacha (Luis Guzman), for it is important to keep one’s friends close, but even more important to keep your enemies closer.

Pablo’s ascent has him believing that he can do anything, he can be anything, including the President of Colombia. His cousin and closest friend, Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba) warns him that his political dreams are bad for the business, but Pablo is beyond reason. He positions himself as a philanthropist with a dream for Colombia, but his history catches up with him, and he’s shamed out of parliament for being a drug dealer. The humiliation is too much for Pablo, and he unleashes a brutal war on the streets, bringing Colombia to its knees, and giving the government no choice but to support extradition of convicted drug lords to the United States, and empowering the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Colombia.

Although history will serve as a spoiler to how Pablo’s life eventually turned out, the show’s execution is flawless. It’s thrilling, it’s got a great deal of black humour, and it’s impossible to stop with watching only one episode. The screenplay explores the lives of both the drug lords, as well as the men and women on the other side. Wagner Moura’s portrayal of both Pablo, the ruthless drug lord, as well as Pablo, the gentle family man, is impeccable. Although the narration isn’t one-sided, the show has a narrator in the DEA Agent, Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who has been brought into Colombia to help the American government tackle the drug menace. Steve Murphy, and his partner, Javier Pena (the extraordinarily handsome Pedro Pascal), along with the Colombian General, Horacio Carillo (Maurice Compte) are crucial players in the fall of Pablo Escobar. It’s interesting to know that the real Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, who’ve long retired from their Narco hunting days, were hired as consultants to show to ensure that the series is true to the real chronology of events. Season one of Narcos explores the first decade of Pablo Escobar’s reign, and the newly released, and just as brilliant second season, takes on the three years that Pablo spends in hiding. The show is as addictive, and possibly as pleasurable as the drug that forms the core of its story. You’ve been warned.

{Seasons one and two of Narcos are currently streaming on Netflix}

If This, Then That

A couple of days ago, I was reading about the algorithm, or the computer code that internet giants like Amazon and Netflix use to round up recommendations for their users. They’ve constantly been updating their algorithm, in order to provide better recommendations, and the name of the algorithm they use now, is called Pragmatic Chaos. I found this intensely fascinating – imagine engineers poring over complex mathematical equations to help you find the best way to burn another ten hours of your life, watching television. Pragmatic Chaos determines sixty percent of what is being watched/rented at Netflix, which is a ridiculously large number for sales that’s generated by a piece of code. Inspired by Pragmatic Chaos, and in the hope that this will contribute towards the remaining forty percent of viewing choices, here are my recommendations for what you should be watching, based on what you like.

If you like Sherlock, you will love Broadchurch: If you were to pin point to the reason for the appeal, and at times, frenzy behind the BBC’s contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, it would be Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock. His accent, his lack of empathy and his cheekbones make him a character who is hard to ignore and to dislike. Broadchurch, also produced by the BBC, has a similar emotionally unavailable protagonist (with similarly high cheekbones) in detective Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant. Much like Sherlock, Broadchurch has a wonderful working partner chemistry between the leading pair (Olivia Colman who plays Ellie Miller), too. If you enjoyed Sherlock, then it’s time to make way for Broadchurch as your new favourite detective series.
{Broadchurch is presently telecast on Colors Infinity}

broadchurch, television show reviews

If you like Friends, you will love Grace and Frankie: Most of my generation grew up on Friends, and I can’t remember anyone who disliked the part hilarious, part heart warming (and part bawdy) coming of age comedy. Most of my generation is also now all grown up and facing existential crises every other day, which is why I recommend Grace and Frankie, a show about two women in their seventies whose husbands leave them for each other, and now have to navigate the single life by themselves. This show is just as heartwarming, hilarious (and bawdy) as Friends. While Friends saw a lot of us wanting to become adults and grow up overnight, Grace and Frankie will make you feel a lot better about ageing.
{Grace and Frankie is on Netflix}

If you like House of Cards, you will love Veep: If you enjoy House of Cards and Francis Underwood’s takeover of the American government, it’s probably because you either have a twisted mind that’s similar to Francis’, or because you enjoy fast-paced, and entertaining shows based on American politics. If it is indeed the latter, then you will enjoy Veep, a political comedy that is as sharp as it is silly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is excellent as Selina Meyer, the Vice President (Veep for short) of the United States who has startlingly little power. Veep is the light to the dark that House of Cards brought to politically themed shows, and although it is very funny, do not expect it to be as entertaining as the actual American elections that are going on right now.
{Veep is being telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

veep

Higher Powers

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I am not entirely a fan of television which is politically themed, primarily because I don’t understand it. This was the reason I stayed away for as long as possible from the critically acclaimed, giant fan base having and first ever Netflix Original, House of Cards. There’s too much television to watch anyway, I told myself, and just like that, the first web-only show to win an Emmy, became a casualty in my watch list. Last week, however, thanks to a bout of dehydration that our city’s summer had blessed me with, I stayed at home and caught up with the show.

Kevin Spacey plays the gloriously vicious and power hungry politician, Francis J. Underwood. Frank, he of calculated ambition, has been a key player in bringing to power the new President of The United States, a role for which he expects to be rewarded by being appointed Secretary of State. However, the President decides to go in a different direction, and Frank leaves not with a position, but only a feeling of betrayal. This sets to motion a series of events where Frank extracts carefully planned revenge on all who wronged him, while doing all that he can to get to the top of the political food chain.

Kevin Spacey occupies the screen with a presence which I have, in all of the television I’ve watched so far, never encountered. He smiles when he doesn’t mean to, he stays calm when you know he’s burning inside, and ever so often, turns to the camera to talk to the audience and tell them what’s really going on in his signature southern drawl. The show is full of quotable quotes on power – “Friends make the worst enemies”, “Hunt, or be hunted”, “Power does not sleep in”, and Spacey leaves no room for doubt that from the minute the show begins to when it ends, it’s entirely Frank Underwood’s.

house-of-cards

The themes which dominate House of Cards are not anything novel when it comes to soap operas – backstabbing, loyal henchmen, well meaning addicts, corruption, call girls adept at the art of blackmail, and affairs all around, but they’ve been presented in a manner that is refreshing, an aspect for which the credit should go the brilliant cast of actors who form the show. Robin Wright, in particular, is spectacular as Frank’s frosty, devious wife. The Underwood marriage is much like eating cold, slightly stale pizza in the middle of the night – it’s not right, but you simply cannot get enough.

Some of the events, and the politics that are covered in House of Cards are so over the top, that there were many instances where I found it hilarious to even contemplate that this is a show which is supposed to reflect the life of American politicians, and American politics. Having said that, and considering the fact that we live at a time and age when someone like Donald Trump is a serious candidate for becoming the most powerful leader of the free world, maybe not that hilarious.

Popular talk show host, Stephen Colbert, in a recent episode asked Kevin Spacey if he ever thought that a particular storyline was too broad, and was too fantastic to ever happen in real life, to which Spacey responded that there have been multiple times when he thought that the story writers were really “pushing it”. “And then I turn on the news”, Spacey continues. “And actually, we’re the ones who are behind”.

{House of Cards is on Netflix and also cast on Zee Cafe}