Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.
Honestly, had you ever even really *heard* of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who *have* found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?
As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 *million* viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.
The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.
Russian Doll is a series about meanings within meanings, extending from the double meaning of the very title, through to the genius Netflix stroke of releasing this Groundhog Day-style tale *on* the renowned and celebrated Groundhog Day itself.
Most people are familiar with the ornamental ‘Russian dolls’ which nest inside of each other; revealing the top of the doll only leads to one the next size under and on and on until the smallest is uncovered, usually the seventh. Layers upon layers of dolls. They are known in Russia as ‘Matryoshka’, which derives from the Latin meaning ‘mother’. Matryoshka dolls symbolically represent fertility and motherhood, the largest the matriarch protecting her young.
This on first glance may seem less important to a show like Russian Doll, in which ostensibly the ‘doll’ of the title is the character played by star and co-creator/writer Natasha Lyonne, Nadia Vulvokov – a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish descent around whom the time loop conceit rests. In truth, motherhood and the internal pain represented by the Matryoshka dolls lies at the core of Russian Doll, which, like those ornamental souvenirs, hides more than it first appears.
If anything proves the Netflix corner of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe has found its groove, or perhaps in this case its soul groove, it is the second season of Luke Cage.
Marvel’s partnership with Netflix to weave together four shows set in New York City has reached an interesting place, after three years of regularly airing content. The Punisher added a fifth main show to the mix late last year after The Defenders, a much-touted coming together of Cage and fellow heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, underwhelmed a great many. Iron Fist’s first season last year suffered a critical mauling, while people have been lukewarm on Jessica Jones’ recent second season – after it raced out of the gate in late 2015 with a powerful piece of comic-book television. In other words, the Netflix corner of Marvel is drifting a touch, and is in sore need of a booster to remind people of how good it can actually be.
It looks like Luke Cage may, therefore, have returned at just the right time.
By now you no doubt have heard about how the Season 5 launch of Arrested Development has been a bit of a ‘fustercluck’ all-round.
The accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour against star Jeffrey Tambor which led to his firing from Transparent, a questionable interview with the New York Times which landed Jason Bateman in particular in hot water, and now presumably trying to head off any more corrosive media troubles, Netflix have cancelled the U.K. press tour ahead of the Season 5 premiere on Tuesday. It’s all just a bit of a mess all round, tinged with the whiff of scandal concerning the key issue rocking the entertainment industry this year – inappropriate behaviour of male actors against their female co-stars, in a variety of ways. It does, however, lead to an important question we haven’t yet achieved the distance to answer.
Does the personal fall of artists compromise the art they have worked on itself?
So imagine you’re in a pitch meeting with a major studio (in this case ABC). You have all your ideas stacked up ready to go and then one of the studio heads says “you know what we really want? A mash up of The West Wing and 24. Politics! Action! Conspiracy! Bills! Sounds cool, huh?”. Of course, because you’re a writer who wants to put food on the table, you say: “uh, sure…”. And there you have it: Designated Survivor is born.
Now, let me be clear: that’s not how Designated Survivor, which has just been cancelled by ABC in what is fast becoming an infamous ‘Cancel Friday’ where several well-known, fairly long-running shows have been axed, came to be. I think. I’m pretty sure David Guggenheim, the creator, didn’t have to be talked into developing a hybrid of Aaron Sorkin’s erudite look at Democratic politics in the White House, and the pulse-pounding, 9/11-reactive action madness of 24 – especially not for an actor as engaging and charismatic as Kiefer Sutherland. Nonetheless, of all the shows given the axe in this latest cull (including Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine – until it was saved last minute by NBC), Designated Survivor is by far the weirdest and, honestly, probably the most deserving.
Just to clarify, starting a title with Anon is not me trying to go all highbrow and Shakespearian on all of you. It does of course refer to a new picture being released next Friday, starring Clive Owen & Amanda Seyfried, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, which is being promoted with a curious affectation: it is both being released in UK cinemas *and* on the Sky Cinema service as a premiere simultaneously on the same day. In a world where people worry about how Netflix Original movies are threatening to make cinema obsolete, this only adds fuel to the fire.
Now I haven’t seen Anon. My website Set The Tape was at the press screening and our guy there gave it a decent review, but the film didn’t set his world alight. I will refrain from judging Anon until I’ve seen it, and I will see it, but will I see it at my local cinema? Probably not, in all honesty. Why would I? I’m fortunate enough to have the means to have Now TV, and by extension Sky Cinema, so I can get home from work on Friday, grab a snack from the cupboard, put my feet up on my sofa, and watch Anon on my 45’ plasma. Alternatively I could travel five miles, pay for snacks, sit next to a stranger, and not even be able to stop the film for a cuppa. Again, why would I?
Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach. This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.
This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal. While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.