What I thought about: The Business of Drugs

Did you know one of the world’s largest producers of meth is Myanmar? Me neither. This docuseries, focused on the economics of drug dealing, shines a light on supply chains you never knew existed, and for that reason is a recommended watch.

Fox looks on at a display of force from a Myanmar militia – who might be funded by the drugs trade

What’s it about?
Amaryllis Fox is an ex-CIA analyst who used to work in counterterrorism. In other words, she’s been around. Fox takes us through a different type of drug in every episode, complete with a series of voice-overs, visits to drug trafficking hotspots, and interviews with experts (both the scientific kind and the… drug trafficking kind).

You’ll learn a lot about the economics of the drugs trade for Cocaine, Synthetics, Heroin, Meth, and Cannabis. There’s also a bonus episode on the opioid epidemic that the USA is still suffering the effects of. It’s not all numbers, though – you’ll be faced with the harsh reality of what pushes drug mules to risk their freedom – or even their lives – in pursuit of a slightly better pay packet. In other words, they’re also victims.

What do I like about it?
It’s a fresh take on the usual documentaries we see on drug abuse, although there’s enough of the ‘traditional’ drug documentary coverage to keep things interesting and well-aligned.

I particularly liked the Cannabis episode which explored why the legalisation of cannabis in California hasn’t managed to significantly reduce illegal sales of the drug – which still command 80% of the market. Although I’m generally an advocate of decriminalisation, it obviously has to ‘work’ to increase safety, reduce organised crime, and maybe benefit the public purse a bit. California is, it seems, an example of what not to do.

What do I not like about it?
The production values in this series are a teeny bit lacking. On-screen graphics appear somewhat inconsistently, and some of the filming seems a bit hap-hazard. Mind you, it’s not enough to distract you entirely.

Oh no, what’s far more distracting is the significant change in appearance between the version of Fox appearing in all the studio-lit interviews (a post-filming retelling that fills in some of the gaps and links between scenes) and the version of her in the rest of each episode where she’s interviewing someone or travelling to a particular area. It seems silly when you realise it, but it took me a hot minute to work out that they were the same person!

Worth a watch?
If you’re at all interesting in learning a little behind-the-scenes of the drug trade, there are some genuinely insightful pieces in this show. I’d recommend it.

By the way…

  • Fox joined the CIA when she was just in college. Her memoirs are available as a book, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA
  • Wait, this also relates to the above… Fox’s memoirs are being turned into an Apple TV+ drama series. Get hyped!

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Quickfire round: Unsolved Mysteries

We all love a good mystery, although most of us desire the satisfaction of having the mystery solved by the end of the episode. Thankfully, despite being deprived of it here, Unsolved Mysteries still manages to be an enticing watch.

Reconstructions and archive footage are blended together, which adds to the viewer’s immersion in the mystery.

Although there is one episode on a massively-corroborated UFO sighting, the rest of the show’s episodes cover murders. First, we hear about the story of a recently married man who goes missing and is found dead days later in an abandoned hotel building, having seemingly gone straight through the metal and wood roof, a feat that would have required jumping from an extreme height. However, nobody can work out a convincing-enough theory as to where he would have jumped from to end up there. I found this one to be the most sinister of the entire series because of the victim’s relations to a shady businessman who refused to cooperate with police and the documentary.

I like that one episode is entirely in French, covering the well publicised murders of the entire Dupont de Ligonnès aristocrat family (well, everyone other than the father). This episode is probably the most horrific, but you’ll eventually learn that what happened to the family is not so much of a mystery as some of the other episodes in the show.

I won’t spoil the rest, but I implore you to watch them. Each episode is well made, with reconstructions and archive footage interspersed with current-day interviews featuring relatives and officials who worked on the unsolved cases at the time. There’s no central narration, just a careful telling of the story all the way through.

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What I thought about: I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel’s comedy-drama about sexual assault is, I suppose, what you would call a masterpiece of television. I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface of understanding the show after running through the episodes once.

The supporting cast, such as Weruche Opia (playing Arabella’s best friend, Terry) are also excellent.

What’s it about?
Arabella, played by Coel, is a millennial who rose to fame after posting a series of relatable tweets which eventually got turned into a book (this actually happens more than you might think). On the eve of a draft deadline for her second novel, Arabella allows herself one hour to have a fun night out with friends. At some point her drink is spiked, and she wakes up, disorientated and with an alarming cut on her forehead. Her only memory of the night before is a sinister flashback that suggests she was raped, which she initially ignores.

What do I like about it?
The show covers a wide spectrum of contemporary issues around sex, sexuality, assault, and substance abuse, which are ever important topics in society. These are handled with hints of humour that make for interesting watching without detracting from their seriousness.

You have to understand that, although the show has a degree of linearity in its storytelling, Coel exercises a large dollop of artistic licence. This allows for interesting narratives including a flashback to the characters’ younger years, a little bit of hallucination, and the truly incredible final episode that sees Arabella confront her rapist.

What do I not like about it?
I’m cautious about saying too much in this section for fear of having not properly understood the show. Some of the issues it covers are delicate, and I hardly have first, or even second-hand experience of many of them, so I’m not sure it would be right for me to tackle them.

I will just say that I didn’t quite understand the role of Arabella’s flatmate Ben, besides understanding that, at face level, he’s a nice and somewhat reserved chap. I’d be really interested in getting an explainer from someone that was able to crack this nut.

I will also say that, as wide-ranging as the show was in terms of sexuality, the inclusion of a transgender character right at the end felt a little squeezed in, a sort of afterthought. It would have been good to see his relationship with one of the main characters (I won’t say who) develop and blossom a bit earlier on in the show.

Worth a watch?
Yes, just bear in mind it’s very 18+ and some scenes can be triggering.

By the way…

  • Coel revealed that she had been sexually assaulted while writing her previous hit, Chewing Gum, and her experience inspired this show.
  • When I watched the show, I mistakenly thought it had finished airing at Episode 10 (there are two more episodes), and was about to write my review being bitterly disappointed by the vague ending.

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Quickfire round: The Babysitters Club

Based on the books of the same name, this sort about a group of 7th graders who form a group to provide babysitting services to their local area was packed full of teachable moments for its target audience (of which I am not a participant).

Although the books began in the 1980s, this show is entirely modern – everyone has a smartphone

When Kristy’s mum struggles to find a babysitter before a date with her wealthy boyfriend, Kristy, who isn’t taking well to her future stepfather and is ostensibly looking for a distraction from them, has the idea of forming a club to make the process a whole lot easier. She’s the president, of course, as the one with the most experience babysitting her own younger brother. But the club is more than just a business. The members form a close friendship that, while tested, remains strong throughout.

Each episode is narrated by a member of the club and is somewhat formulaic. Something bad happens which the characters then overcome. The great thing about this show is the importance of the issues tackled in it, some more subtle than others. Claudia, an incredibly chic future art student, feels that only her grandmother, Mimi, truly understands her. When Mimi suffers a stroke and can only recall early memories (and the Japanese language she natively speaks) – breaking that bond of understanding (the episode also sprinkles in a bit of American-Japanese war history as well, which is fantastic to see).

In another episode we see Stacey, new to the local school having recently relocated from New York. She’s been struggling to hide her insulin pump (and thereby her Type 1 diabetes) from the club, which has rather disastrous consequences when a rival babysitting enterprise leaks a video of her passed out on the floor at her old school. This raises concerns from the parents of the children she babysits, which is, like all the episodes, happily smoothed over by the end. It’s this careful structuring of disaster followed by resolve that allows the show to tackle these issues without veering away from its PG rating.

If you happen to have or know a child aged around 11+ I would definitely recommend sitting down and watching this with them. The acting from the all-girl main cast was brilliant (although, notably, the supporting boys were not as good) and it really deserves a sequel.

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Comedy Special (4 specials, actually)

For some reason a couple weeks ago I went on mini-binge of just Netflix stand-up comedy specials. So here’s what I thought of each of them, in the order I watched them.

Riaad Moosa: Life Begins

Riaad is an Indian-born, Muslim, South African comedian who chooses not to swear or use explicit language in his stand up. Honestly, I didn’t notice any of that was missing – he still managed to pull off some of the best bits of my binge. Although there were some quieter segments which we could have done without, overall the show was funny and certainly worth a watch.

My favourite bit was a story about the time he trained as a magician. “Which instrument did you play…” asked a family member, because “there are no magicians in India”. “Well, there are actually, they’re called accountants. They make your money poof, disappear. Never mind Sim, Sala, Bin it’s more like _K, P, M, G!”

He has a moustache in the special, but I couldn’t find a good picture.

You won’t see much political commentary from Mo.

Mo Gilligan: Momentum

Despite appearing on TV a lot recently (especially Channel 4) I’d never properly watched anything from Mo, and I now realise that I’ve been missing out. Although this special was comprised almost entirely of ‘remember when…’ nostalgia, which some might consider a cheap source of comedy, Mo’s show made me laugh out loud the most. I guess that’s what you get when you’re one of the most precisely targeted viewers: a millennial Brit.

I also liked the use of a stage band to enact some of the grander bits, it wasn’t overused and they were able to effortlessly transform from ‘house band’ style to something more like garage, just in time for Mo to remix a series of children’s rhymes Rastafari style. If you’re aged 18-30 and from the UK, give this a watch.

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

Although I did like this stand up, I’m struggling to recall the bits from it, which is probably a sign that it wasn’t all that great. So… now I don’t have much to write about it. I will say that the closing story about a time Hari encountered a racist bloke in a coffee shop was especially good, and probably the best closer of the specials I watched.

Most likely to be ‘randomly selected’ for enhanced airport screening.

I couldn’t think of a caption that wasn’t expletives.

Jim Jeffries: Intolerant

Jim is one of my favourite comedians and I’ve seen all his previous specials on Netflix, so this one was eagerly awaited. The special has a loose theme based on a story of when Jim, who is lactose intolerant, eats a large amount of cheese while out on a date. Jim elegantly breaks the story multiple times to tangentially provide his usual expletive-laden commentary on seemingly random topics.

If you ask me, this wasn’t one of his better specials. I didn’t laugh out loud as much, and I found the rant against millennials somewhat unnecessary and based on over-reported stereotypes. But hey, like Jim says, you can hate some of the jokes but still find the others funny. And that I did.

Quickfire round: Alex Rider

Fourteen years on from Stormbreaker, the film adaptation of the first Alex Rider book that I absolutely loved watching (when I was 10), comes this TV adaptation of the second book, Point Blanc. Nostalgia, hit me!

Alex looking less than impressed after essentially being forced into being a teenage spy.

The first thing to note about this show is that, although it’s adapting the second book in the series, it’s been heavily modified to restart the story from before Alex became a spy. The death of Alex’s uncle and his recruitment into the special branch of MI6 is completely re-told and folded into the plot of the second book, which sort of makes sense. Newcomers get some crucial backstory, and fans of the books don’t have to sit through a second adaptation of Stormbreaker.

The plot of the Alex Rider series was always a bit over the top. He’s a teenage spy, somehow able to out-wit and out-fight quite a number of supposedly experienced bad guys. So, you know, just suspend your disbelief while you watch. In Point Blanc, Alex attends an academy of the same name, which claims to operate a highly successful rehabilitation school for troubled teenage children of wealthy and influential parents. In reality it’s a tool for worldwide domination dreamt up by Dr Hugo Greif, a neo-Nazi and head of the school.

Dr Grief is aided in his operations by SCORPIA, the terrorist organisation that isn’t actually revealed until the fifth book. Working for SCORPIA, top tier assassin Yassen Gregorovich performs a few contract kills on some parents of former pupils at Point Blanc who became suspicious after their children returned from the academy. Yassen is a key figure in the series and fans of the books will enjoy having him bump into Alex at the academy, telling him they may meet again.

Enough plot – was it any good? Yeah, it was. It was heavily adapted though. It takes place in the present (everyone has the latest iPhone), Alex has half the gadgets from the book, and (although this is a very good thing) the academy is half girls, whereas in the book they were all boys. But the action scenes were good and I was genuinely hooked even though I already sort of knew what was going to happen. It is very appropriately rated 12 – you’re not going to see some grisly death scenes and excessive swearing in this show.

Otto Farrant was fantastic in the leading role, and I really hope we get to see him reprise his role for a second (and third, and fourth…) season. The Alex Rider series, which is still being written, was probably my all time favourite fiction as a kid.

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What I thought about: Upload

As long as you try not to think about the questionable wide-arc plot in this show, Upload is a funny, romantic, but also sobering look at the potential technological advances of the next 10-20 years.

That’s a talking therapy dog, by the way.

What’s it about?
Nathan Brown is badly hurt in a car accident at the prime age of 27. As his vitals are dropping, his wealthy girlfriend hastily arranges his ascension to heaven – digital heaven, that is, in the form of a consciousness transfer to Lake View, a premium virtual afterlife in which her family has ‘unlimited data’. It takes Nathan a while to get used to his new living situation, and he’s having some trouble recalling what he was working on in the weeks leading up to the accident. With the help of his ‘Angel’ (customer service representative Nora Antony) he begins to settle in and see what digital living has to offer.

In the living world, Nora starts to develop feelings for Nathan and, suspicious of the corruption of his memory files, helps to uncover the truth behind Nathan’s death.

What do I like about it?
The little details that are scattered in the show are really quite fun, and serve as an unexpected treat whenever they crop up. When certain things in Lake View cost money to use, a literal button for ‘in app purchases’ appears. When the servers temporarily lose power and kick into backup mode, the uploads (what they call dead people in the virtual afterlife) turn to blocky, Minecraft-like characters, which seems obvious but caught me so off guard that I laughed out loud.

The underlying romance that develops between Nathan and Nora is also cute, and the show makes good use of the setting to demonstrate this. Nora invites Nathan to walk on water, ‘I just activated the feature’, she says, before he eagerly steps forward and plunges straight in. She was teasing him. There’s also a particularly poignant moment where Nathan’s memories of his time at Lake View – including his time spent with Nora – are at risk of being erased. I genuinely felt sad for them in that moment, so you know the show is doing something right.

What do I not like about it?
The plot – the part of it where Nathan tries to find out why he died – is a little sketchy. I think the writers held back too much, letting slip so little in this season that this part of the story felt meaningless overall. I know where they’re going with it though, it’s the sort of onion-style plot we’ve seen in shows like Orphan Black. What I mean by this is, in Season 1 there’s a bad guy, but in the season finale he’s revealed to be small fry in a bigger operation. This will probably repeat until the show gets cancelled and, in the final season, the last super-super-super-evil person is revealed to have been the actual mastermind all along.

Worth a watch?
Sure. It’s funny and it’s a cool (if slightly dystopian) insight into what life could be like fairly soon.

By the way…

  • We’re getting a second season, thank goodness.
  • The show sat in development limbo for about 2 years after it was ordered until filming finally began in Vancouver in May 2019

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Quickfire round: The Politician (Season 2)

Nailing the comedy-drama tone, the second season of this millennial-friendly election campaign story was a great, albeit totally forgettable, watch.

Payton is great politician, but is he a good person?

Payton Hobart is an ambitious (and, following the events of the first season, no longer wealthy) student, whose goal in life is to become President of the United States. He started his political career in high school, running for student body president, which was a great season all in itself and you should totally watch it.

The last episode of season one flashes forwards a few years to Payton’s life at NYU (having ben unable to get into Harvard on his own merits). The campaign manager from his previous election, McAfee Westbrook, applies to intern at the offices of Dede Standish, New York State Senator. She quickly discovers there’s not much work to do – Dede is running unopposed.

Naturally, Season 2 is all about Payton reviving his political aspirations to run against Standish in the upcoming election. In a way, everything is elevated here: it’s no longer school politics, it’s state politics. It’s not kids, it’s adults.

Payton, being the incredibly young candidate that he is, latches on to the environment as his key policy driver. Although this resonates with the state’s young voters, Astrid Sloan, Payton’s former rival turned campaign member, points out that all that matters is the turnout. State elections have a poor turnout – only a few hundred votes are needed to swing it, and young people are notoriously bad at turning up to vote.

The campaign quickly heats up and we see all sorts of absurd revelations and schemes. This is the heart of the show, the back-stabbing, double-crossing characters always keep you guessing about their ulterior motives. There’s much more to the show, though, as it’s really quite weird. Threesomes are a big thing, for some reason. I’m told this is the influence of the show’s creators who also produced Glee and American Horror Story. We also see a side plot involving Payton’s mother running to be Governor of California, which would probably be funnier if she wasn’t played by Gwyneth Paltrow, peddler of questionable pseudoscientific wares.

This was an enjoyable watch and I finished it in a weekend. But I think it’s telling that I had to look up the show on Wikipedia to remind myself exactly what happened in it. As good as it is, it’s not going to leave a mark. It’s great entertainment, but nothing else.

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