What boxsets have you been watching? Including Ozark, The Tick, Sneaky Pete and Pillars of the Earth

Summer boxset viewing on TMINE

Amazon's The Tick
Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman in Amazon's The Tick

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you each week what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching. TMINE recommends has all the reviews of all the TV shows TMINE has ever recommended, but for a complete list of TMINE’s reviews of (good, bad and insipid) TV shows and movies, there’s the definitive TV Reviews A-Z and Film Reviews A-Z. But it’s what you have you been watching? So tell us! Ah go on. Go on, go on, go on

As I mentioned on Friday, TMINE is easing its way back into this whole ‘talking about tele’ thing, following a rather long and self-indulgent vacation. But that goes doubly, perhaps even trebly for WHYBW, given there’s been a whole month of entertainment since the previous WHYBW. I’m also still playing catch-up a bit.

So rather than try to tackle everything in one go, I’m going to stagger it all into manageable chunks. At some point in the next week or so, I’ll look at the new shows and the episodes of the regular shows that I’ve been watching; I’ll also do a separate entry on all the movies I watched.

But today, it’s time to go boxset-mad. Yep, left to my own devices (literally) and with a whole bunch of streaming services offering downloads now, I was able to take a few boxsets of TV shows on holiday with me to watch. I didn’t manage to get through all of them, but as well as Marvel’s The Defenders, which I’ve already reviewed, I managed to get through no fewer than three boxsets, some old, some new – and then I only went and watched another when I got back.

After the jump, then, let’s talk about Netflix’s Ozark, and Amazon’s Sneaky Pete and The Tick. Oh, and The Pillars of the Earth, because my wife wanted me to watch it. That’s an old one you’ve probably seen, though.

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in Netflix's Osark
Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in Netflix’s Ozark

Ozark (Netflix)

Netflix thriller about Chicago accountant Jason Bateman’s attempts to avoid being murdered by a drug cartel by setting up a money-laundring business in vacation resort the Ozarks. Episode one turned out to be smarter and funnier than I was expecting, based on both the plot rundown and the dark imagery in its advertising:

Netflix's Ozark

However, episode one ends before Bateman makes it to the Ozarks, making it hard to determine what the rest of the show was actually going to be like. Indeed, episodes two onward introduce us to a whole bunch of new characters, as well as fleshing out Bateman’s family. Bateman’s biggest challenges are that as well as physically having a huge stack of cash he needs to launder for boss Esai Morales, there are very few businesses in his neighbourhood, let alone ones that can deal with the amount of money he needs to dispose of.

The initial few episodes are then about his attempts to buy into these businesses, including a hotel run by possible love interest Jordana Spiro (The Mob Doctor, My Boys, Love Bites), a strip club and a church. At the same time, he has to deal with the local petty white trash criminal element, which turns out principally to be Kimmy from The Americans. There’s also a farmer played by the always menacing Peter Mullan (The Fixer, Quarry), who has the potential to be a far bigger worry for Bateman, and Jason Butler Harner (Ray Donovan) as a gay FBI agent who’ll do anything to use Bateman to get to Morales.

For the most part, there’s a linear plot running from the second episode through to the final episode as Bateman has to find ways to both launder and hide increasingly larger sums of money without getting killed or find out. There’s the continual evolving relationship with his cheating wife/enforced business partner Laura Linney and his upset children, one of whom he suspects of being a serial killer. All of this is done smartly, with Bateman using charm, honesty and implacable logic to deal with everyone who might work with him or against him.

The show’s real strength in this, perhaps unsurprisingly given show co-creator Bill Dubuque wrote The Accountant, is its obvious love of finance and financial detail, being unafraid to blind the viewer with the science of business and how you actually go about laundering money in quite large amounts. There’s also the humour, with Bateman frequently able to take the show to hilarity.

Perhaps the strongest episode is also its weirdest and most innovative – Kaleidoscope, which as the name suggests, is a collage of flashbacks, frequently assembled out of chronological order, which show how all the characters ended up where they were by the start of the first episode. Almost a second standalone entry that nevertheless sits eighth in the running order, it’s a fascinating watch that plausibly shows how Bateman’s character descended into crime, how he ended up working with Morales and how his and Linney’s relationship began to fall apart.

You could even reasonably watch it as an introduction to the show, as it showcases another of Ozark‘s strengths: its humanity. Even the worst characters in the show have unexpected depths and Ozark handles almost everyone sympathetically, whether it’s the murderous Kimmy who shows unexpected managerial talents despite her deprived background, Harner’s equally horrifying family history or just random hicks.

Season 1’s ending is as surprising as the route it takes to get to that ending and the show’s already been renewed for a second. I would definitely recommend watching it, although it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

Sneaky Pete
Giovanni Ribisi and Bryan Cranston in Amazon’s Sneaky Pete

Sneaky Pete (Amazon)

Apparently the most viewed ‘Amazon Original’, probably because of the presence of Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, Sneaky Pete also started out quite promisingly, with small time con artist Giovanni Ribisi assuming the identity of his former prison cellmate in order to escape from hardnut casino-owner Cranston, to whom he owes money and who’s kidnapped his brother to ensure he pays. Based on the pilot, which was originally for CBS, I assumed the show would settle into a nice format, with Ribisi using his criminal skills to help his adopted family in their bounty-hunting business.

I was wrong.

Whether it was always the plan, a subtraction of additional episodic plotlines caused by the move from CBS’s 20-odd episode season length to Amazons’ 10 or so, or the result of the change in showrunner post-pilot from David Short to Graham Yost, the rest of Sneaky Pete is basically just two things: Cranston’s attempts to locate Ribisi and Ribisi’s attempts to swindle the money he owes Cranston from his new family before they work out he’s not who he says he is. Some of the hints at future storylines that were in the pilot, such as Ribisi’s attraction to his ‘cousin’ or aunt Margo Martindale’s initial realisation that Ribisi isn’t who he seems to be, get dropped. There’s also no bounty hunting by Ribisi at all.

Even when it comes to sneakiness, it all comes up short, with the show’s one ‘long con’ so blindingly obvious that you keep expecting an additional narrative layer but it’s one that never comes.

For a moment, the ending begins to look like the show’s heading in a promising direction, abandoning its format completely for the now-commissioned second season. Then it’s clear that’s not going to happen. Oh well.

There are some positives, including a decent cast and some good moments, but overall, definitely not worth the time I expended on it and yet another Amazon Original that can only be described as ‘average’.

Amazon's The Tick
Peter Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman in Amazon’s The Tick

The Tick (Amazon)

In contrast to Sneaky Pete, which took a decidedly wrong turn after a promising pilot, The Tick took a decidedly right turn after a really quite poor pilot. Based on the comics/cartoon series/live-action TV series/best-selling LP by Ben Edlund, The Tick posits a world where superheroes really have existed for decades – as have supervillains. One poor accountant called Arthur (Griffin Newman) saw his father killed by villain The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley) as a young boy and has been obsessed with him ever since. Even The Terror’s supposed death wasn’t enough to stop him from maintaining the quest to find him and put him to rights.

Then into Arthur’s life comes a big blue, nearly invulnerable superhero with an unimpeachable moral code and Adam West diction who’s called The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz), along with a suit that gives Arthur powers of his own kind. Unfortunately, everyone seems to want the suit, including the deceased Terror.

The Tick is, of course, a character designed to satirise superheroes, but The Tick‘s pilot episode made the same terrible mistake as Warner Bros and Sony did in the movie world of going grimdark. There’s very little humour, a lot of pain, some gore and there’s the category error of making The Tick potentially a figment of Newman’s imagination.

Fortunately, Edlund realised his mistake because the rest of the surprisingly brief 6×30 minute episode season is a hoot. All the darkness gets dropped in about the first 10 minutes of the second episode – the playing of the Fight Club/Mr Robot anthem The Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ is the marker point where it’s clear Edlund wants us all to know he knows what went wrong and that he’s fixing it.

After that, it’s all marvellously funny, from supervillainess Ms Lint (Yara Martinez) – her power over electricity also makes her attract dust – having to share her ‘lair’ with her ex-husband since he refuses to sell his half through to masked avenger ‘Overkill’ (Scott Speiser) and his foul-mouthed debates with his own AI-enhanced lair ‘Dangerboat’ (voiced by Alan Tudyk), which spends most of its time composing its own theme tune.

If I had a complaint, it’s actually that the first season is too brief and that it’s almost like a three-hour origin story for Arthur and The Tick that will lead to bigger, better adventures, rather than a complete story in its own right, but it’s a fun, afternoon’s viewing that’s full of proper laughs – and should hopefully show the world the might of Peter Serafinowicz (seeing as Running Wilde didn’t exactly take off).

The Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth (US: Starz; UK: Channel 4)

Based on the Ken Follett book of the same name, this is a historical piece set against the backdrop of cathedral-building in England in the 12th century. Welsh monk Matthew Macfadyen wants to build a new cathedral to honour God; master-builder Rufus Sewell can do it in stone (although maybe not the roof), with a little bit of help from Eddie Redmayne. However, bishop Ian McShane resents the power it might give Macfadyen and he’s willing to play off King Stephen (Tony Curran) against other vested interests, including Redmayne’s love Hayley Atwell, who’s trying to win back her father’s title.

It’s all very soapy and McShane hams it up something chronic, but it’s still a lot of fun, not just for spotting all manner of future stars (Redmayne, Atwell, Alison Pill et al) and because it’s all reasonably accurate about an obscure period of our history (wait, there was a King Stephen…? Yes, son, there was), but because you get to learn about flying buttresses and the like along the way. Lovely wife, who adored the book, thought it was a great adaptation and loves it just as much, which is a pretty hearty endorsement.

The series is also quite edifying as you realise how much effort and love went into making all these huge structures a millennium ago, around which so many of our towns are organised. Worth a watch if you can find it (it’s available on DVD) and we’ll be giving the sequel World Without End a whirl at some point, soon.

  • Mark Carroll

    Well, that’s inconvenient, now I may have to watch “Ozark” and “The Tick” too. Might also consider your approach of splitting up all I’ve watched over the month.

    • The Tick’s brief enough you can watch it any time. I assembled a piece of flat pack furniture in the time it took to watch the season. Ozark’s not must-see, but if you have Netflix and don’t want to watch anything involving superheroes, it’s one of the best Netflix Originals

  • JustStark

    Interesting. I am now using the Netflix gift subscription that my brother got me for my birthday, so I may watch Ozark. As for The Tick, sounds like I can wait until Amazon offers me another free trial, which based on past experience sound be in about a year and a half, by which time there should be another series, and I can watch it all at once so I don’t get the ‘that was a good start, what’s next?’.

    So, what did I finish? Well, I’ve already mentioned my confusion at the end of the Man in the High Castle. but there were another few:

    Top of the Lake and Top of the Lake: China Girl. Peggy Olson puts on an Ozzie accent and investigates disturbing crimes which all tend to have a connection to her tragic past, sometimes a rather credibility-straining one, amongst a crazy and bizarre (and occasionally incredibly starry) supporting cast. Better than that makes it sound, actually, Some very darkly funny bits. Only really falls apart in the run-up to each ending — the endings themselves are good, but it’s as if everything is toddling along quite nicely to the beginning of the final episode, whereupon the writer realises they are running out of screen time and has to quickly set everything up in ways that don’t always make a lot of sense.

    I have to disagree with you on 12 Monkeys: I thought that it only really took off when it finally dumped the stupid ‘stop the virus’ plot, which was always a stupid idea for a TV series (for a film, sure, you can stop the virus or not; but for a TV series at a certain point you have to either succeed or fail and either way the plot is over) and dived headlong into time banditry. The final twist was obvious from early on, but it hardly matters as they keep throwing out the ideas getting there.

    (Oh, and with regards to our previous conversation, a clear example of soap opera plotting, as while each episode has its own mission / problem to resolve, the focus is clearly on the ongoing shifting allegiances amongst the ore characters: who’s allied with who against whom. I think over the course of the second series they go through every possible combination before ending up pretty much back where they started.)

    And, before my trial expired, Amazon’s Comrade Detective. Took a couple of episodes for me to work out what it’s doing as I was expecting just a broad parody, but it’s not, it’s far subtler and cleverer than that: it’s the kind of parody that’s more interested in being a good example of the sort of thing it’s parodying, and trusting that the audience will see the meaning emerge form that, rather than just making fun of something by exaggerating its features. It’s not communist Police Squad, is what I’m getting at. It’s a lot better than that.

    • Mark Carroll

      Thank you. I am now doing some more annoying and awkward Amazon juggling (gah, technologically why can’t they be just like Netflix?) but will definitely then try to get to “Comrade Detective”.

      • JustStark

        I’m going to have to figure out how to stop Netflix from auto-playing the next episode 6 seconds after the credits start, though.

        • Depends on the platform, probably. The back button does the trick on a Roku

          • Mark Carroll

            Yeah, Wii Netflix doesn’t have that annoyance.

          • Is that any good? We used to have a Wii and I remember the resolution from it, even with the extra-high-res cable, was still quite low.

          • JustStark

            I meant permanently, as it was quite jarring to have to scramble to find the remote as soon as the credits appeared. But it turns out there’s an account setting that does the job.

    • 12 Monkeys’ departure from the virus plot makes some sense logistically, but the virus plot is also one of the two main points of the movie, the other being its time paradox. 12 Monkeys the TV series basically ditches both of those, hoping that everything else will compensate, but once they dicked around with all the character relationships, I didn’t find there was much left, beyond the bonkers mysticism. That wasn’t enough for me.

      Comrade Detective was on my to-do list, so I’ll probably get to it on your recommendation once I’ve polished off the new episodes of Halt and Catch Fire

      • JustStark

        Ah, I never saw the movie so I didn’t have that to compare it to; to me it was just like Timeless but done better as it had the courage to lean into, well, everything, will Timeless is just so watered-down by comparison.

        I thought the soapy bits worked on paper, it’s just that they go through them implausibly fast — she goes from distrusting him to loving him to hating him to loving him again in about six episodes, and that’s while everybody else is undergoing similar reversals and counter-reversals — which makes them seem like they lose coherence as characters.

        • I figure if you want that, there’s always Sliders re-runs. Somewhere

  • Mark Carroll

    This time around I’ll try mentioning everything but the films, documentaries and cookery shows. “Meet David Sedaris” appeared on BBC radio and he’s quite entertaining and amusing. I also saw some of the actual American version of CNN and goodness it was pretty much all national politics with special focus on Donald Trump; the international version of the channel is certainly better. Mostly in the US they seemed to have a series of various shows in which the regular host chats to a few people around the desk (with one or two videoconferenced in) about some large issue and how Trump figures into it.

    Next, some older stuff. I watched some early “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”. It was better than I expected, especially in terms of consistently being of reasonable quality. I rewatched “Ultraviolet” (the English vampire-related miniseries) and quite liked it; for toward the end I’d forgotten what the big plan was and there was a nice twist even though it was small. Still, it ended as if it would have rather liked another season or two. I also started “Colditz” which is more or less as one would expect in most respects but fairly promising. I’ll be interested to see how they stretch it out for so long, and I wonder how much of that will be flashbacks, but we will see.

    “Preacher”‘s ambling along, drawing from the comics but not slavishly. I had my doubts at times and maybe I preferred the first season but I am still liking it, especially given the competition. The pace is enough that if I am not a big fan of how it seems then, well, it won’t be that for long. It is not bad at treading the comic-adaptation line where it’s obviously absurd but not painfully so. It’s not worth thinking about too hard, even so.

    “Game of Thrones” rocketed along so fast that I wonder if it could have done with a full-length season next year after all. We used to let things develop but now I feel like we even wholly skip what might once have been half an episode. Plenty of fan service this season. It certainly made me wonder about contrast with the books, which I have not read.

    We got into some American cartoons too. I heard that “Archer” was now better so I gave season eight a try, the Dreamland one. It was okay, I did laugh a few times, but it wasn’t quite enough for me just to see the same characters in a different situation. I feel as if early “Archer” delivered witty lines at a good rate, in a way that largely hasn’t happened since. I have also been watching “Rick and Morty” which has been good fun and pleasantly varied; we have definitely had some imaginative and apt use of other popular culture. Maybe I should give “Mike Tyson Mysteries” a try though off-hand I am not sure I can obtain it from among my current subscriptions.

    • Game of Thrones this season (as with Marvel’s The Defenders) is proof that you can have seasons that are too short as well as too long and that if you try to compress too much, you end up having to ditch plot logic to compensate