The Night Manager

Prime Choice

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

E-Commerce giant Amazon launched Prime Video a few weeks ago to its Indian customers. Prime Video is an online video streaming service, like Netflix and HotStar. The service is free, rather, packaged with the ‘Prime’ subscription that Amazon offers for its customers, where, for an annual fee, they receive extra discounts, free delivery and other privileges. Although Prime Video is probably one of the cheapest subscription services out there at Rs. 500/- a year (not to mention the host of benefits that you’d also be receiving as an Amazon customer), it must be said that there isn’t much variety on offer, especially on the TV show front. But hey, when life gives you lemons, you make lists – so here’s my pick of the TV series that are available on Prime Video.

1. Mozart In The Jungle – Based on Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir of the same title, Mozart in The Jungle is a series about the inner workings of orchestras, and what it takes to make it in (western) classical music today. A young, unconventional new maestro is appointed at the (fictional) New York Symphony to shake things up and bring in more audiences. The motley set of characters might seem too many at the start, but it doesn’t take too much time for the show to draw you in to its world. The episodes are short, and move fast, so if you find yourself binge watching for five hours straight, well, I warned you.

2. Transparent – Transparent has been a bit of a constant fixture on every award show’s nomination list ever since it made its debut in 2014, and with good reason. This show about a seventy-year-old man who comes out as a transgender to his family, and the world, is heartwarming in ways you don’t expect it to be. Transparent takes on heavy issues like gender and sexuality with a light touch, and a great deal of sensitivity and humour.

3. The Girlfriend Experience – The Girlfriend Experience traces the story of a law student interning in a corporate firm who moonlights as an escort for rich men. The show initially seems to be a tiring commentary about prostitution, but halfway through the first season becomes much more complex and crosses over multiple genres. It’s dark and at times, quite morbid, but riveting throughout.

4. The Night Manager – Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman come together to create magic on screen in this BBC produced mini-series. I have raved about this show enough times on this space, but I’ll reiterate here that it truly is one of the best mini-series out there in terms of story-telling, acting and adrenaline.

5. Mr. Robot – Mr.Robot is easily one of the edgiest television shows out there, with its hacking based storyline and borderline neurotic protagonist, Elliot (Rami Malek). Mr. Robot is thrilling, but also terrifying, for every episode is a reminder of the colossal amount of information that the internet has on and about us, and how vulnerable we are to it. It’s a show that’s as much about hacking people, as it is about hacking computers.

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The 10 Best Shows of 2016

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

There was an avalanche of new content that stormed our television screens during 2016, but some shows stood much taller than the rest. Here are the 10 best shows of 2016, in no particular order –

the crown on netflixThe Crown: The Crown traces the life and times of a young Queen Elizabeth as she struggles to balance the monumental responsibility that has been thrust on her, with her once ‘regular’ life. Claire Foy is stunning in her portrayal as a young woman with an immense burden on her shoulders. The show is visually arresting, tightly scripted and is proof that story-telling is, and always will be superior to big budget special effects. {Netflix}

Westworld: What happens when robots created solely for the purpose of human pleasure discover consciousness? Worse, what happens when they realize the magnitude of the abuse that they’ve been put through? A mind-bending storyline with equally confounding twists and a cast that reads like an honour roll, no show this year is capable of making you stay up at night the way Westworld is. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

Stranger Things: The eighties are back with this eerie sci-fi mystery that plays like a Stephen King novel brought to life. Stranger Things boasts of not only Winona Ryder (who is flawless as a distraught small town mother trying to make sense of aliens in her backyard), but also the most lovable 10 year olds in recent television history. {Netflix}

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The Night Of: Dark and gripping, The Night Of is, to borrow from the show itself, a subtle beast. Naz Khan, every bit a good Muslim boy, finds himself accused of a gory murder, and it doesn’t help that he has no recollection of events. Riz Ahmed, John Turturro and Bill Camp are fantastic in this courtroom drama that makes no mince of discussing racial prejudice and Islamophobia in the backdrop of the American justice system. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

The Night Manager: John Le Carre’s riveting espionage novel is brought to life by this lavish BBC production which has some sublime acting performances. Hugh Laurie doesn’t just play, but transforms into Richard ‘The Worst Man In The World’ Roper, a billionaire weapons dealer, and Olivia Colman is brilliant as Angela Burke, the very pregnant and very determined British enforcement agent who’s out to catch him. As for Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager may as well be the show which cements his place as the next James Bond. {Amazon Prime Video}

Game of Thrones (Season 6): The sixth season of Game of Thrones premiered this year, with each episode having a bigger revelation than the next. With resurrections, family reunions and sweet revenge, the sixth season was probably the fastest moving in terms of storyline after the first, and the final episodes of the season, ‘Battle of the Bastards’ and ‘Winds of Winter’ were television masterpieces. If you’d abandoned the show a few seasons ago, now is the time to catch up. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

The People vs OJ Simpson – American Crime Story: The miniseries that swept the Emmy’s this year, People vs OJ Simpson resurrects the real courtroom drama of the infamous murder trial that shook ‘90s America. The screenplay is such that it’ll have you on the edge of your seat, even though the events that transpired are now history. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

Black Mirror: Black Mirror is a compilation of 6 episodes, each narrating a different (horror) story detailing our relationships, and growing reliance on technology. Whether it’s the story of killer robotic bees or a future where your worth is measured in ‘likes’, Black Mirror will have you looking at your phones very differently. {Netflix}

Better Call Saul (Season 2): Better Call Saul might only be two seasons old, but the spin-off has already outdone its much celebrated original, Breaking Bad. The series about a small time lawyer’s path to becoming an ace con-man has excellent story-telling, sharp dialogue, terrific acting, and is one of the best shows on TV right now. {Colors Infinity}

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The Americans (Season 4): The thriller series about two Russian spies living average American lives during the peak of the Cold War only got better this year. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give extraordinary performances, yet again, as the show dives even deeper into the complex themes of identity, patriotism and family, with a few wigs thrown in. {Hotstar, Star World Premiere HD}

 

You can read the round up of my favourites from 2015, here.

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 Guessing Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I suppose the easiest way of explaining the Emmy awards is to say that they’re like the Oscars, but for Television. There is a Television Academy in Los Angeles, similar to the Motion Picture Academy, which honours the best of Prime Time Television. The awards are determined in an identical manner as well, through peer voting. The Emmy awards differ from the Oscars however, in the manner in which the votes are cast. Unlike the Oscars, where every voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (which is roughly about six thousand member strong) gets to vote in all the categories, the members of the Television Academy are split into groups based on the expertise. So in essence, actors vote for acting categories, writers for writing categories and so on, automatically making the voter group smaller, and the awards, very competitive. As if that’s not hard enough, the quality of television these days ensures that the difference between an Emmy and second place would have only been the barest of margins.

The nominations this year have been mostly predictable, like Game of Thrones finding itself nominated in a whopping twenty three categories, but with a few surprises, like Aziz Ansari being nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category, as well as his show Master of None, being nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series. If Aziz Ansari wins, he will be the first of South Asian descent to win an Emmy in the lead comedy actor category (he’s the first to even be nominated), but faces stiff competition with the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a woman, Maura Pfefferman, in Transparent) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) also vying for the honour.

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The Night Manager found itself in the honours list as well, with the show being nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and its leads, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman nominated for acting honours. It’s hard to say if they’d win though, because non-Americans haven’t really had the greatest runs in the Emmys, and also because People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is in the same category. People vs OJ Simpson scored twenty two nominations, making it second only to Game of Thrones with respect to the volume of nominations, so while I have a great deal of love for The Night Manager, I won’t be putting my money on them.

This year also saw The Americans finally being given the nominations it deserved after three years of being in the Emmy snub list. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series categories. Keri Russell is up against some stiff competition with Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P Henson (Empire) and Robin Wright (House of Cards), and so is Matthew Rhys, who is competing with the likes of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot).

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I hope The Americans win an award this year, not because the performances and writing were better than that of their fellow nominees’ (I mean, did you take a look at that list? They’re all impeccable), but because The Americans deals with a subject matter that is complicated, and uncomfortable – it makes you empathise with your enemies, and turns your perceptions of the bad guy on its head. It is intense, for me, has taken over the spot which was filled by Better Call Saul as the best drama series on television at the moment. So could this be the year of the Emmy underdogs? Or will it be just another year where the rest of us television nuts wax lyrical about our deserving, off-beat favourites, but Game of Thrones and House of Cards split all the awards between themselves?
Probably the latter.

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.