Posts Tagged ‘Netflix’

I recently decided to watch more anime, and inspired by an Idea Channel episode, I chose Attack on Titan. It’s a show that probably deserves two reviews, so here we go…

It’s All About Style

Attack on Titan is the weirdest and most fascinating thing I’ve watched in years. Set in a fantasy landscape based on a Japanese perspective of 19th century Europe, it’s a story of survival. For a hundred years humanity has been contained within a vast walled city, threatened from the outside by the Titans, monstrous giants who eat people for fun. When the first of the city’s three rings of walls is breached, a group of young people are propelled into the armed forces fighting for humanity, and a slowly unravelling plot to find out what’s behind the Titans.

I love the imagination of this setting. The towering walls and lumbering giants give it a sense of the epic and the unreal. The soldiers use gas-fired grappling wires to hurtle through the air and attack the vulnerable necks of the Titans. The fundamentals of how this war is fought are like nothing else I’ve seen. Like most fantasy, they look nonsensical if you take a step back, but they’ve been thought through in detail and are so different that I was fascinated. They also allow for some immensely cool and unusual action sequences.

This bonkers style is what I love about Attack on Titan.

No, Wait, It’s All About Substance

Attack on Titan is the deepest, darkest exploration of the horrors of war I’ve ever seen in fantasy. Set in a civilisation on the brink of extinction, it sees a group of young people propelled into the armed forces, struggling to cope with the traumas of that life. They see friends eaten by monsters, civilians crushed beneath falling buildings, superiors turning to cowards or running out of control. They face their own rage, depression and even cowardice in the face of war. Their lives have no neat answers – sometimes friends die in battle without them ever learning why or how. In Attack on Titan, war really is hell.

What’s extraordinary is how compelling this is. The absurdity of the war they’re fighting – swinging on wires as they try to fight monsters – only makes the trauma more stunning and realistic by contrast. It makes the reactions and transformations of the characters into something that left me too stunned.

Dammit, Now I Have to Wait

I watched the whole of the first season of Attack on Titan on Netflix, then discovered that the next series won’t even be on TV until 2016. It’s going to be a long, impatient wait, because bizarre as this is, bewildering as some people will find it, I thought it was an extraordinary show, both in its style and its substance.

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 The problem with superhero stories is making them convincing. Sure, that’s not a problem when you’re entertaining a drooling fan like me with big spectacle like Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you’re aiming to create something low key, or to draw in a bigger audience, that’s more difficult. It’s a challenge any genre writer will face if they want to reach plenty of readers, and so it’s interesting to see how Marvel and Netflix’s recent TV show Daredevil has handled this.

In my view, there’s one small element that’s incredibly telling.

Superheroes in New York? Yeah Right.

First, lets give a bit of context, because none of what I’m going to say will make sense without it.

The nature of the superhero Daredevil, aside from being the blind martial artist with super senses, is that he sits on the boundary between two worlds. He exists within a huge universe of superpowered characters in a sprawling interconnected epic of comics / films and TV shows. But he also exists as a street level hero fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood of New York.

This sets up one really obvious problem for Daredevil as a TV show. How do you reference that superhero universe while not making it sound absurd in the context of a gritty crime story?

But there’s another problem, one I discovered reading The Devil is in the Details, a book of essays on Daredevil. Hell’s Kitchen, which was a run down neighbourhood when Daredevil was created half a century ago, has become gentrified. As a setting for a gritty crime drama, it doesn’t work as well as it once did.

Given both of those challenges, how do you put the screen Daredevil in context?

Less is More

The answer, as shown in the first couple of episodes, is by bringing those two problems together and then applying some subtlety.

Almost the only link that the show directly makes to the Marvel universe, in its early episodes at least, is to reference the huge damage done to New York in The Avengers. They don’t talk about what the destruction was, thus avoiding tackling a world of Norse gods and super soldiers, but by referencing the destruction they let fans see that the Marvel Universe has affected these people’s lives. It’s the same trick that British TV show Ultraviolet used for its vampires – if you avoid using the word ‘vampire’ or ‘superhero’, and just include its implications, you can skirt around the potential absurdity.

This reference is also how they deal with Hell’s Kitchen. Thanks to the destruction done in New York, Hell’s Kitchen is a dump again. Hey presto, in a couple of lines they’ve tackled both of their biggest problems, and given the story a rich contextual background.

That, in my opinion, is some clever writing. A lot of thought and time clearly went into crafting a few seconds of dialogue, and it was well worth it. We could all learn from it.

If you haven’t already, then I really recommend watching Daredevil. It features some great writing and acting, a number of good fight scenes and at least one really imaginative one. It comes with a big warning though – it is really not for the squeamish, taking the Marvel tone as far from Guardians of the Galaxy as it can get.

And if you’re into superheroes or want to know more about Daredevil I heartily recommend The Devil is in the Details. It includes some fascinating essays, including one on the old question of how plausible his superpowers are.

Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.

Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?

The word ‘customer’ has a certain grubby, commercial ring to many people working in the arts and the public sector. I say this having striven all my life to work in those sectors, and as someone wary of the ‘people as sources of money’ thinking that can attach to the word.

Not what the word 'customer' is all about

Not all the word ‘customer’ is about

The problem is that ‘customer’ actually has two different and related uses. Sure, it can mean someone with whom you’re entering into a commercial transaction, providing something for money (lets call this an A-customer). But in the absence of any other word to fill its place, many organisations and systems thinkers also use ‘customer’ to refer to anyone to whom you’re providing a good or service (lets call this a B-customer).

Amazon and Hachette and customers

If you pay any attention to books as an industry then you know that there’s currently a dispute between online bookseller Amazon and publisher Hachette. If you follow any authors or book bloggers you may also be aware that it’s become incredibly divisive within the industry, with fierce words put forth on all sides.

For me, the deciding factor in this is customers. Putting the customer first isn’t just empty rhetoric – in the long run it’s what leads organisations to success. Publishing is going to keep changing, evolving towards systems that serve B-customers better because that’s how they’ll get the money out of A-customers. Any argument about publishing that doesn’t begin and end with the reader experience, taking authors into account along the way, is flawed. Publishing exists to provide readers with books, and if you don’t remember that then you’re doing it wrong.

I’m seeing a lot of arguments, especially on the Hachette side, that are doing it wrong.

TV streaming and who’s the customer

This ‘customers first’ thinking is also why I think streaming services are going to win out over traditional TV channels.

Traditional channels have viewers as their B-customers, the viewers of their shows. But their A-customers, the people paying for it, are the advertisers. As someone recently pointed out to me, if you’re not paying for something then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. As a result, those A-customer advertisers have pulled TV in directions that are less satisfying for the B-customer viewers, the shows drowned out by the volume of adverts. Given other cheap options, viewers will go for a more satisfying experience, and the service will die.

But I don’t want to be a customer!

There’s no point burying our heads in the sand. If you want to sell books, if you want to read better books, if you want to make smarter decisions about your work whatever that work is, then you need to be thinking about A-customers and B-customers. Even great art works by serving people’s needs and desires. And no-one but customers is going to pay your bills.

 

Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons

Netflix have created a TV series of From Dusk Till Dawn, the crazy gangster vampire film. Having just watched the first episode, it seems to be doing the same weird thing the film did, which is to give us a crime drama at the start and will move on to the other stuff later, rather than mix the two smoothly together.

I don’t have a problem with this in principle, but it creates some problems with audience expectation. Viewers looking for horror and supernatural mayhem may get turned off by this first episode, which revolves around a stand-off at an isolated roadside store. Those who find themselves enjoying this interesting crime drama may get annoyed when it goes crazy later. Or maybe everybody will go in with full knowledge of the original, and it’ll work out nicely. Who knows?

It’s a weird thing to make in many ways, but Netflix have proved that they know what they’re doing with drama, and even supernatural drama. House of Cards is astonishingly good, and Hemlock Grove showed that they could do a decent version of urban fantasy. The supernatural element is much better foreshadowed here than in the From Dusk Till Dawn movie, and it looks like the central characters will run into the vampires for more reason than just accident. Kudos to the show’s writers for building a smoother setup than their source material.

One of the great advantages of TV streaming services like Netflix is that they have the confidence to make interesting TV. The fact that they’re dipping into genre drama is a great thing for those of us who want to see gangsters fight vampires. And maybe if we’re lucky, next time Netflix will try mixing up their dramas in newer ways. After an evening of House of Cards and From Dusk Till Dawn, I would love to see the supernatural hit Washington next time. Who’s up for vampires in the White House?

Anyone else been watching any of the Netflix original shows, and if so what did you think?