Quickfire Round – Middleditch and Schwartz

With no idea if any of it was objectively good, this long-form improv show made me genuinely laugh out loud – a rarity for American humour.

They’re able to do so much with just two chairs for props

Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz have a real stage show where they perform long-form improv based on an initial scenario discussion with a member of the audience. Netflix thought it would be a good idea to film three of these for a one-off comedy special – and they were right.

Each episode, roughly 50 minutes long, was hilarious and completely different. The first, involving a wedding, had the clearest (you might say easiest) plot line to follow and was therefore the least littered with unintentional gaffes. It’s probably my pick of the three. The second involved a class at law school, a truly random experience but with a satisfying pay off. The third and final episode was probably the weakest, not helped by the lack of detail provided by the audience member and the confusing plot twist which couldn’t be ironed out. That said, none of the episodes were a waste of time.

The show is just as much satisfying as it is funny. Middleditch and Schwartz are highly skilled, managing to weave in and refer back to both the nuggets of information gleamed from the audience at the beginning, and wacky details improvised throughout. Often times the funniest parts were the ones I saw coming, which did double work by reminding me of the initial hilarity and repeating it at the perfect time.

You’ll want to dedicate a solid 50-minute slot for each episode without interruptions, to help you keep up with the flow and keep the inside jokes at the forefront of your mind.

I’m just worried I’ll never see another improv show that compares.

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What I thought about: Too Hot to Handle

This ain’t no Love Island. Problematically short, lacking in depth and character, and full of fake tension, this Netflix dating/self-fulfilment hybrid is a cute but ultimately disappointing competitor to the UK’s favourite reality show.

The guy on the right is a MASSIVE twat.

What’s it about?
Five guys and five girls (all of them ridiculously horny) land at a beach side resort, ostensibly with the intention of pairing up and having flings with each other, with some kind of ‘winner’ taking home a $100,000 cash prize. But there’s a twist – throughout the resort, their activities are being monitored by LANA, a talking lava lamp. LANA wants the participants to form deeper emotional connections rather than commence a shag-fest, so it will deduct money from the prize fund if anyone has any kind of sexual contact (in my Jeremy Kyle voice, that’s anything from a kiss to intercourse).

What do I like about it?
There are two tenements to the show that actually are interesting.

Firstly, the participants are made up of people from multiple places – The US, UK, Canada, and Australia. There’s a particularly satisfying cultural difference between UK and US dialects that can be fun at times – such as Bryce trying to get to grips with the concept of a ‘geezer’, or basically anything else Chloe says.

Secondly, the show features four sort of personal development classes that the participants are forced to do – two mixed, one for guys and one for girls. You might dismiss the courses as hippy dippy nonsense, but the participants genuinely seem to have gotten something out of them each time, especially the single-sex ones (perhaps they feel more able to show vulnerability in the absence of the opposite sex?)

What do I not like about it?
Unfortunately, save for the interesting stuff above, everything else about the show is lacking any depth whatsoever. Many of the participants are criminally under-utilised. The show tries to do the whole ‘bombshell extra participants’ staple of Love Island but they just don’t manage to pull it off in the same way.

The AI gimmick was super lame. It’s obviously a real human voice, it doesn’t look particularly good, and it clashes entirely with the rest of the show (we only see a phone on screen once, and all the classes emphasise being driven by nature). It’s also way less suspenseful than even the lame text-fest that takes place around the fire pit in Love Island.

Worth a watch?
Not really, unless you want to see a little bit of reality drama (some of the characters are truly bitchy) and you’re desperate for something to tide you over until whenever Love Island manages to come back.

By the way…

  • I’m convinced one of the relationships is put on for show in order to boost their respective Instagram influencer cred.
  • It’s comprised of 8x 30-45 minute long episodes, so I feel it’s far too short to get to know any of the participants properly.

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What I thought about: Money Heist (Part 1)

Oh. My. God. This show is one of the best thrillers I have ever seen. I’m disappointed in myself for taking so long to press ‘play’ on a show that almost everyone has already seen by now. In case you haven’t yet, let me tell you why I love it.

Not the only masks you see in the show, so look out for that

What’s it about?
A group of criminals and outcasts, each with their own individual talents, have been assembled by a seemingly awkward and introverted man known only as the Professor. Over a period of months, they have lived together and trained together to prepare for the greatest bank heist of all time.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the fantastic twists, turns, and overall brilliance of the Professor’s plan. But I can say that this show is truly thrilling, and not at all in the same way as Uncut Gems, a movie I couldn’t finish watching for all the anxiety it was giving me.

What do I like about it?
There’s so much to like here. The way the show unravels the plan – slowly and in time with the action – always keeps you guessing. Something bad happened? Is it all over for the robbers, or did things go exactly to plan? In a poorly made show, you might be able to shake off this gimmick and relax yourself as disaster after disaster is averted at every turn. But Money Heist is not a badly made show. Things do go wrong – and the robbers don’t always recover from them.

Perhaps the best part of the show is the way it portrays the backstories and personal lives of the characters. You don’t get lengthy flashbacks a la Orange is the New Black, instead you are drip fed small, relevant, pieces of history, just enough to plant seeds of empathy in your head before the show snaps straight back to the action. With those seeds planted, you’re suddenly concerned for all sorts of different characters on different sides of the action. With every tense moment, you have to make a split second decision about which of the characters you’re rooting for, and start praying that it works out in their favour. That task in itself is thrilling, let alone the action happening on screen at the same time.

What do I not like about it?
A small handful of characters are a bit too goofy for what should be a gritty drama. They’re incompetent, or annoying, just enough to detract from the rest of the show. Also, as good as the Professor’s plan is, some things they get away with are a little too unrealistic.

Worth a watch?
ABSOLUTELY. But do know that this is a long show. The first part is 13×45-minute episodes. It took me a while, and sometimes it’s an exhausting watch.

By the way…

  • As another Spanish Netflix show, I was expecting someone from Elite to show up in the cast. Instead, I counted five. FIVE. There are FIVE actors from Elite in this show.
  • The show originally aired in Spain with fewer, longer, episodes. Netflix re-cut the show into shorter episodes, and I’m grateful for it.

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Quickfire round: The Hunt

Playing out like a real-life YouTube comments section, this satirical thriller is a fun watch. But its overarching plot is under-developed and the characters are rough around the edges.

I think these gags are also meant to be figurative.

The premise of this film grabs your attention – a group of people wake up in a clearing with no idea how they got there, and they’re being hunted by rich people. We’ve seen these kinds of movies before, my favourite being Japanese cult-classic Battle Royale. This time, the spin is a very modern one: the hunt is a conspiracy theory turned real. Thousands of (ostensibly right-wing) Americans had earlier waged verbal war online against the ‘elites’ in society, claiming that they hunt poor people for sport on a manor in Vermont.

The show’s woke gimmick leads to some pretty funny moments. We see one of the hunted become irate about a presumptive group of ‘illegals’. A pair of hunters start questioning some prey on the right to bear arms, before unloading a double-barrelled shotgun on him. Moments earlier, he had boasted of the seven guns he has back home in New York.

Like most movies of this kind, it gets pretty violent and some of the on-screen deaths can be shocking. But it strikes the right tone at all times. Unlike The Platform, the gore isn’t meant to be dark, and you’re never concerned by it. More just impressed by the makeup FX team and the way the deaths play out.

That also means the movie doesn’t have that must see factor. The overarching plot, whilst interesting and highly topical, is not really handled well. The ‘elites’ all seem like pretty unrealistic characters. Only one of them (Athena) is developed in any detail, and the rest… don’t really make much sense.

If you want to see some fun violence and poke fun at both sides of the American political divide, you won’t be disappointed and at only 1.5 hours long, your time won’t be badly spent. Just don’t expect anything outstanding.

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What I thought about: The Platform

Social commentary? A discourse in communism? A warning to—or from—the rich? I would have carefully considered these themes were it not for the bizarre ending that brought this grisly thriller to an unsatisfying conclusion.

You can of course move down the levels – if you sit on the platform

What’s it about?
A man wakes up in a cell with a hole in the floor and ceiling. Above him are countless identical floors. Below him are the same. A platform with platters of exquisitely presented food lowers from the ceiling. Most of it has already been eaten and probably spat on, or worse. But he should count himself lucky. This is Floor 48.

Welcome to The Hole.

This is a truly gruesome Spanish thriller and not for the faint of heart. Our hero, Goreng, shares his cell with Trimagasi, a much older man with months of experience in The Hole. He quickly gets Goreng up to speed with the rules and norms of the prison. To say much more about the plot would be to spoil it for you, but let me assure you these quaint beginnings will quickly escalate.

What do I like about it?
Firstly, I like thrillers that aren’t afraid to be properly gruesome. What’s the point in presenting a gritty scenario if we don’t get the shocking visuals to back it up? This movie delivers.

Aside from the ending, the plot follows a pretty good pace as we see Goreng encounter a number of difficult situations in The Hole.

I can give credit to some of the movie’s social commentary; on wealth distribution. Each day, the platform is loaded with terrific food, painstakingly put together by an army of top chefs. The attention to detail is crazy. I suppose, then, that the movie is showing us how pointless this extravagance is if the food we have isn’t enough to feed everyone in our society. If you’re hungry, the presentation of it goes out the window. The literal hierarchy of the prison is also an interesting concept – nobody cares about rationing their food so that those below don’t starve. You’re above them, that’s all that matters.

What do I not like about it?
The movie gets really interesting, but the last five minutes are just, huh? Avoiding spoilers here, but I just think it fell completely flat. It also did the hugely ungratifying thing of cutting before we get to see the consequences of the characters’ final actions. I suppose it’s supposed to be left to interpretation, but it just left me disappointed.

Also, Goreng suffers a bit from the ‘hey, I have morals and therefore cannot truly comprehend the insane situation that’s happening, why won’t someone do something?’ stereotype we see a lot. You know the one, where a bad guy does something bad and the other character is shocked beyond belief, yelling ‘hey, you can’t do that!’ Even though they literally can, and did, and that was the whole point.

Worth a watch?
If you’ve seen the trailer, don’t mind some horrifying scenes, and are still interested in the concept, it’s probably still worth a watch. It’s pretty short, too.

By the way…

  • Bad ending aside, Netflix is killing it with their Spanish-language content. Do not change the audio language. Deal with the subtitles.
  • The movie has sparked a lot of opinion pieces on what it all really means. But I would argue that, if it’s not clear enough what the filmmaker is trying to say, they haven’t done it properly.

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Quickfire round: The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show

I suppose I just don’t get American sketch humour, as I consider fewer than half of the sketches in this show to have been any good. It’s a good thing there’s only six 18-minute episodes.

This is meta – a scene from the show that also perfectly illustrates what watching it is like

Sketch shows are one of my favourite forms of comedy. The Armstrong & Miller Show or, even better, That Mitchell and Webb Look (“it’s avocado you c**t!” being one of the best lines in British television, of course). Sketches are great because they can execute a particular idea and don’t have to worry about anything because they only last for seconds at a time.

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to chalk this show up to a significant cultural differences, because I hardly found any of the sketches funny.

The stand-out to me, and the only one that had me laughing out loud, takes place in a boardroom with a bunch of sales executives. Slowly at first, one executive takes a nectarine and starts eating while someone else is talking. Others join her. The eating becomes messier. They’re all eating them now, and start to throw half-eaten nectarines against the wall. They continue talking, mouths full of nectarine, apologising to colleagues dialling into the meeting from elsewhere. We can hear that those people are also stuffing their faces with nectarines as they continue with the meeting. I think it’s the perfect pacing and nonchalance that made this one stand out to me.

The stand-alone sketches are far better than the recurring ones. A demonstration of the board game It me was a smart take on millennial culture, as was Stick with it where a group of friends rave about their favourite TV shows before admitting that half the show is slow and boring but you just have to ‘stick with it’.

The season is less than two hours long, but those hours are best saved by choosing not to watch it. Presumably some of the better sketches will wind up on YouTube and a few of them will go viral.

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What I thought about: Good Girls (Season 2)

Having forgotten all about this crime comedy-drama until Season 2 showed up on Netflix, I went through a cycle of emotions. This show is dumb. It’s thrilling. It’s stupid. It’s unrealistic. It’s so, so long. But damn, it’s good.

Digging up flowers… or something else?

What’s it about?
Good Girls is about three childhood friends, each now mothers to one or more children, who are finding it hard to make ends meet. Beth is a housewife with four kids, living a seemingly idealistic suburban lifestyle. But her husband, the owner of a local car dealership, is a cheater, a loser, and clearly lacking in business sense. Her younger sister, Annie, works at grocery store Fine and Frugal under an asshole boss, as she struggles to earn enough to look after her daughter who she had at a young age. And there’s Ruby, who works long hours waitressing in a vain attempt to pay for her sick daughter’s medical care.

In the first season, they came up with a plan to rob Fine and Frugal to resolve their financial problems. Actually, they do it twice. Along the way they get tied up with a criminal gang’s counterfeiting operation led by the suitably mysterious Rio. In the second season, the FBI are closing in on their involvement in the robbery – along with a host of other crimes they committed along the way.

In a nutshell, it’s Breaking Bad with soccer moms.

What do I like about it?
When I first started watching this season, I recalled the plot and thought it was ridiculous. But the show has so much depth. It’s just as much about the personal lives faced by the characters as it is about the central criminality of their actions.

Beth, it turns out, really hates being a housewife. She wants excitement – in her work life and in the bedroom. Annie gets into a very awkward love triangle, and her relationship with her daughter is tested. Ruby’s husband, Stan, who recently became a cop, finds himself increasingly entangled in the group’s criminal acts, having to chose between protecting his wife and staying true to his honest nature.

The show’s production is also very good – I score it points for creative camera shots and a great soundtrack.

What do I not like about it?
I had to check the number of remaining episodes several times during this binge. The show is long – 13 episodes, 45 minutes each, and a lot of stuff happens in each episode. Don’t get me wrong, it’s largely good content. It just seemed to last ages.

Two more annoyances – Ruby’s family sub-plot is not explored in as much detail as Beth and Annie’s, although I understand why. And finally – this show is super unrealistic. I mean, these characters get no sleep and get away with doing a lot of bad stuff, especially for people under active investigation by the FBI.

Worth a watch?
Yes, but definitely start from the first season or else it won’t make any sense.

By the way…

  • A third season is already airing in the US. There’s a disappointingly long lag time on the UK release, so expect to see it in 2021.
  • If you’re wondering where you recognise Beth’s husband Dean from, the actor played Shaggy in the two live action Scooby Doo movies.

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Quick-fire round: The End of the Fucking World (Season 2)

We saw the true nature of both lead characters play out in full during the first season, so what did this season bring to keep us engaged? Not a lot, really.

A new character and perhaps the only interesting thing about this season

The thing that attracted me to the original season of this show was the insane premise – a boy who meets a girl and plans to kill her. Thing is, we know that’s not happening now. We know he likes her, and we know he’s not really all that psychopathic. The ending to the first season was quite epic. At the time, I really wanted a second season. But in hindsight, they really could have just left it there.

The show tries to keep the story alive by introducing a newly psychopathic character. But it all loops back to the same story, and the side plots are quite weak. The show felt very slow-moving, even for half-hour episodes.

You’ll no doubt have watched this already if you were a die-hard fan of the first season. If you’re new to the series – give the first one a watch, I highly recommend it. But you can stop it there.

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What I thought about: The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia

A light-weight family sitcom, this show has few surprises and isn’t all that funny. But a decent set of characters kept me watching.

Science smarts meets social smarts

What’s it about?
Ashley is a teenage genius. She already has a PhD, and has just secured a job working at the JPL (A NASA facility). To get there, she has to move out of her very reluctant mother’s house to live with her uncle, Victor, a retired professional American Football player and present-day school coach.

Let me introduce some other cast members: Brooke, Ashley’s childhood best friend (a typical teenager, sans PhD, but socially savvy). Stick, the football team’s equipment manager (a slightly awkward, slightly nerdy kid). And Tad, the team captain (and stereotypical jock character).

Ashley’s excited to start her job, but she’s also looking forward to catching up with a few lost bits of childhood that she sacrificed for her studies. She’s never had a group of girl friends before, she’s never kissed a guy, you get the idea.

What do I like about it?
The cast are decent, and it’s interesting to see how teenage sitcoms have changed since the days of Drake and Josh and Suite Life. There’s obviously more of a focus on Instagram and other social media, which the show handles quite well.

Victor, the uncle, is a funny character. He totally forgot his niece was was coming, and has had to quickly adapt from his one-night-stand adventures into becoming a responsible adult, looking after Ashley as she spends late nights out partying with her friends.

You do also get attached to some of the plot, and, no surprises, it’s got to do with the characters’ respective love interests.

What do I not like about it?
If it sounds like this review is a little flat, that’s because the show is, too. None of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, and nothing here is particularly deep. In that regard, it is kinda boring.

Remember this is a family sitcom and stuff needs to be kept at surface level a lot of the time.

Worth a watch?
I’ll be honest, I started watching this primarily because it’s shot in Dolby Vision and I just got a compatible TV. For those interested, HDR really shines in this show, with amazing specular highlights in lights, eyeballs, and jewellery.

You probably shouldn’t watch this show unless you like the premise and want something a bit light and family-oriented to stick on.

By the way…

  • This is another one of Netflix’s primarily Latinx-led shows. I haven’t found a bad one so far.
  • Wikipedia says the show was green-lit for 16 episode, but this season only has 8. Second season incoming?

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