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Preview: Billions 1x1 (US: Showtime)

Posted on January 14, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Billions

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Back when Suits started on the USA Network, it was a refreshingly strong show about lawyers that took a different tack from most legal dramas - it almost never ventured into the courtroom. Instead, it was all about the moves and counter-moves that lawyers made outside the courtroom to force their opponents to concede without the cost and randomness of a trial. Unfortunately, over the years, Suits' real-world chess-playing fell by the wayside, in favour of relationship-based drama and comedy, but the first couple of seasons were hugely enjoyable pieces of Machiavellian manipulation.

A little known fact about Suits is that originally, it was going to be about investment bankers. The show did eventually venture into that realm, where it was clear there was a very powerful pecking order in the world that made those legal eagles look like mere sparrows.

Of course, there's a group of people who make investment bankers look like wrens in the scheme of things: hedge fund managers. Managing billions and potentially worth billions themselves, depending on how you look at them, they're either the oil that prevents the wheels coming off the modern financial world or sociopaths that destroy others purely for their own personal gain.

Billions is a show that gives us Suits to the max, in that a pits a hedge fund giant (Damian Lewis) against America's top lawyer, the district attorney (Paul Giamatti) in a chess match that would make even Harvey Specter balk. Lewis is a genius of analysis, both of figures and people. He's made billions by knowing how to combine the two, deducing who'll do what, why and how to invest accordingly. He's also worked out how to play the PR game - he may be worth billions, but he's given hundreds of millions to 9/11 charities and the families of all his co-workers who died during that tragedy. 

There's also a very strong chance he's made at least part of his fortune through insider trading.

In turn, Giamatti has been raised since birth by his lawyer dad to think through every move and counter move white collar criminals might make. He knows whom to prosecute, when to prosecute and what it'll get him, and he knows how to play the PR game, too.

When an SEC official brings evidence to Giamatti that Lewis might have broken the law, Giamatti has to decide whether now is the time to take down Lewis or whether he's finally met the man who'll break his undefeated prosecuting streak. The best legal chess match in America is about to begin.

But while Billions is in many ways an excellent drama that has all the best qualities of Suits in its heyday, with smart people doing smart things to outwit each other, it's also just a little too Showtime for its own good.

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What have you been watching? Including Blackhat, 800 Words, Y Gwyll, Doctor Who and Continuum

Posted on September 25, 2015 | comments | Bookmark and Share

It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV - they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

And relax. It's here. The Fall 2015-16 season is here. And I've got covered.

Elsewhere, I've reviewed all of this week's new programmes in glorious detail:

Wow. Ain't that a lot? I'm actually impressed with myself there. I'm about to be even more impressed: after the jump, I'll be reviewing all this week's regulars, too: 800 Words, The Bastard Executioner, Continuum, Doctor Who, Y Gwyll and You're The Worst.

But before I even get to those, I even found the time to watch a movie. It's like I just fed 5,000 people with some cod in breadcrumbs, isn't it?

Blackhat (2015) (iTunes)
Although to be honest, I wish I hadn't. I love Michael Mann. Chris Hemsworth is great in Thor. But Michael Mann directing a movie about hacking in which Chris Hemsworth is the main hacker? Oh dear.

Still, that's not the most oh dear thing about Blackhat - that would be the fact it's basically a Chinese co-production in which Hemsworth and Mann are almost hitchhikers, tagging along for the ride. The plot is that the two Chinese leads (Leehom Wang, Wei Tang) who work for the benevolent Chinese police come over to the US after one of their power stations blows up to find out what they can from the man who engineered the malware that caused it: Wang's former college roommate Hemsworth. He then has to track down criminals who may be almost anywhere in the world, with any target and any aim.

Mann does his best to both understand computer crime and make it interesting, but he's no Sam Esmail and this is no Mr Robot. Without sufficient purchase on the material, Mann just goes through the motions. There's a perfunctory romance between Tang and Hemsworth for no good reason. The merry band just fly from SE Asian country to country on sightseeing tours, turning up in the middle of beautiful looking locations for no genuinely good reason. And the story eventually sort of ends, not like Heat but like that episode of The Wire in which Omar gets attacked in prison. You barely know the film's finished.

It looks beautiful, of course, given Mann's presence. But it's soporific, mildly propagandist, doesn't know its material and almost never manages to excite.

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Third-episode verdict: American Crime (US: ABC)

Posted on March 25, 2015 | comments | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerAmericanCrime.jpgA Barrometer rating of 0

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC

So what is an American crime? Well, according to the rather brilliant ABC show American Crime, it’s a regular crime but observed as simply part of a wider picture, in which systems and attitudes lock individuals into situations and behaviours they can’t escape.

Following on from an apparent burglary in which a veteran is killed and his wife raped, the show depicts how the crime and the investigation affects the families of those involved. But it also asks why the crime happened, how society views the crime, whether the crime is indicative of larger problems and whether there’s a middle ground that could be reached by everyone that’s unachievable thanks to the extremes and rules society lays down.

Following a first episode that was perhaps a little self-conscious of its own importance and that occasionally escaped from its combination of artful direction and verisimilitude to give us aspects that were a tad ‘writerly’ in their unlikeliness, the following two episodes have barely put a foot wrong in showing us the insides of the American justice system and how it can trap those who have barely done anything wrong or who would benefit from either treatment of human kindness. It’s tried to put in the shoes of junkies, drug dealers, legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, Latinos, black Americans, white Americans, fathers, mothers and everyone else as their lives overlap and they fail to understand one another, only knowing their own lives and what society tells them to be.

The show's a hard watch. It is literally the last thing I watch out of every week’s viewing, not because it’s a bad show, but because it’s such a dishearteningly true picture of reality, without any glimmer of hope and goodness to relieve the misery, beyond the fact it’s on broadcast TV so can’t quite tread into the darkest realms. That's why I’ll only doing my third-episode verdict on a Wednesday, when the show airs a new episode on a Thursday. That's why the ratings keep dropping.

But as I’ve said before, if this were on HBO, there’d be no doubt that everyone would be calling it the most important, most realistic, most astutely observed crime drama since Southland or perhaps even The Wire. If you have any interest in quality TV, this is the one American show you should be watching right now.

Barrometer rating: 0
Rob’s prediction: With these ratings, it’s unlikely to survive, so catch it while you can.

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