The Playlist – Netflix
Are you exhausted with the insufferable tech-disruptor messiah storyline? For every Dropout, there are ten Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. This format needs disrupting, so The Playlist is very welcome. A Swedish drama about the Spotify origin myth that you could easily binge in one sitting, The Playlist is replete with an ensemble cast.
Each episode tells the story of one of the leading players from their point of view. First, we meet Daniel Ek (Edvin Endre), the visionary who, in response to the Pirate Bay trial of the early 00s, came up with the idea of a free music streaming service, licenced and legal rather than based on stealing music from the artists and their labels. He’s what the tabloids would call a tech whiz kid; the lad’s got three monitors, and one is in portrait. His self-confidence is high even before he sells his first multi-million idea. But the trappings of success are hollow. He’s looking for inspiration and purpose.
He’s serious about his start-up, employing the country’s best codes and treating them like rockstars. Perma-waistcoated Matthew is his smart but silly investor who believes in him wholeheartedly. They want to buy the music rights, sidestepping the ideological war raging around torrent sites. Unusually for tech-bros, they make mistakes and laugh about them. It’s not all ego, at this point, anyway. Daniel is convincing when he talks about the future of music, passionate but unpolished.
Every discussion with the record companies descends into him yelling and storming out. Streaming is a dirty word, thanks to Pirate Bay, and any possible relationship between tech and music has been soured. Sony’s Per Sundin (Ulf Stenberg), rocking the whole ‘bad guy’ aesthetic down to the tiny goatee, is the only person who realises something needs to change. But even then, he’s no idea how. We are rooting for him despite Daniel’s impatience and knowing the end of the story already.
The last frame is Per telling us directly that’s not how it happened, and the second episode is his. Sharing the story this way gives the series unique momentum and insightful perspective on the action. While I’m not enamoured of every character, I’m excited about each episode, which is very rare.
The Peripheral – Amazon Prime
This new big-money Amazon series is based on the 2014 sci-fi mystery thriller by William Gibson. The action hops between London in 2099 and the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2032. The consistently excellent Chloe Grace Moretz is Flynne Fisher. She lives with her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) in your classic American tumble-down farmhouse with an old Airstream caravan out front. Mum is sick, so they’re forced to buy expensive pills from a local dealer because they can’t afford the drugs on prescription (political satire alert!).
Flynne works a job in a 3D printing shop, and the macho Burton is a computer game beta-tester and ‘jockey’ for rich folks who need a sharpshooter on their Call of Duty team. He has glow-in-the-dark haptic scars across his body which cause him great pain. I’ll stick with my regular Xbox controller, thanks.
Burton is sent a new device to test for big money; an immersive simulation game set in ultra-glamorous futuristic London. We learn early on that Flynne is the real game-playing powerhouse in the family. Without a moment’s consideration for her safety, she pops on the spindly metal helmet and joins the game (which seems to be simply obeying a woman’s voice in her head, Charlotte Riley doing her best Michelle Gomez impression).
Gamers can empathise. They get you in with the promise of James Bond-esque cocktail parties and sexy intrigue, but then it’s level 2, and suddenly you’re getting eyeball surgery without anaesthetic.
What’s the easiest way around a retina-scanning door lock? Implanting the eyeball of a dead woman into your servant’s eye socket, of course! Mysterious Wilf (the lovey Gary Carr) tries to tell Flynne the truth about her experience. There is no game; this is time travel.
In 2032, we learn Flynne now has a very real bounty on her head, and small-town America is dealing with menacing military vehicles in town and a unit of well-trained mercenaries. Fortunately, Burton and his mates have the skills to protect Momma and the old homestead.
A lot happens in this first episode, but it’s paced well and doesn’t feel overwhelming. It’s intriguing. If like me, you’re wondering where Flynne’s avatar is and if she has to play as her brother forever, episode two clears that up quickly. We’re here to watch Chloe Grace Moretz kick ass, and we are not disappointed.
The Bear – Disney+
Welcome to The Original Beef of Chicagoland, a neighbourhood sandwich shop where chaos reigns supreme. Jeremy Allen White is Carmy, the prodigal son of an Italian family, back to run the place after his brother’s death. Formerly working in all the best restaurants in New York, he’s now making things to be served with plastic cutlery. His surroundings have changed, but his ethos of the best team and best ingredients hasn’t changed a bit. Even though he’s now trading anything he can get his hands on for meat with ‘connect’ in a parking lot.
Carmy isn’t well. He survives on antacids, cigarettes and an all-encompassing self-loathing. We suspect he’s pitched up here because of a breakdown due to the terrible pace and shocking bullying experienced in those high-end kitchens. He’s unable to be closer to his family, doggedly avoiding them. But nostalgia and family photos permeate this episode like a messy scrapbook.
It’s loud, fast, and frantic, even before seeing a complete kitchen service. Like the cooks, we learn as we go along. Insufferable cousin Richie tells Carmy he was running the place just fine (he wasn’t).
Carmy is trying to work out the extent of their awful debt and stamp his authority on extremely resistant staff. Richie tells him he’s pompous and delusional, which could be accurate, but one thing can’t be denied: Carmy’s food quality. When the customers get restless, it’s Richie to the rescue, setting them straight with threats of extreme violence and some perfectly pitched choice insults. He’s the Shakespeare of slurs and swearing. We see why they keep him around.
His team, especially the disagreeable Tina, call him names to his face. He calls them ‘chef’ as a sign of respect. Sydney is his hire and the only person on his side. She can’t understand why he’s not still at NOMA. “What are you doing here?” she asks. His matter-of-fact response is, “Making sandwiches”. They’re kinder to each other when they’re all at the table eating ‘family’ dinner together before service. This heightens the intrigue; when will we see his biological family together?
I’m in a quandary. Watching just one is impossible, but this is far too good to binge. And those lingering shots of roast beef, taking up the screen like a well-seasoned landscape. My tip: don’t watch hungry.
Aldi’s Next Big Thing – Channel 4
For a calmer culinary experience, try this new competition show. It’s MasterChef, The Apprentice, and Inside the Factory all rolled into one. Chris Bavin and Anita Rani preside over this rather complicated format. Small-time independent food producers compete in different categories for space on Alid’s shelves. That’s access to a staggering 1000 stores nationwide.
There are six producers head-to-head each week, whittled down to two who get special treatment and feedback and then there’s an overall winner of that big-money contact. Is there an overall series winner? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. But that’s not the point. We’re here for the grub – what’s cooking?
This dinner includes insect burgers, Chinese and Italian sauces (separate, not a strange new fusion food), children’s ready meals and pies—quite the buffet. Aldi judge Julie says she wants to be surprised. Bugs will do that. While they are an excellent sustainable protein source, they don’t make the cut. It’s been the food of the future for years.
Aldi’s cheap-as-chips price point and the quantity needed shocks a lot of competitors. Dani’s lovely Chinese sauces are currently £5 per jar and are made in her flat in Lewisham. Julie wants to retail them for 69p. And she needs 150,000 units yesterday. Dani doesn’t make the cut.
The final two are Mandira, making excellent homestyle curries, and Christian, with his ‘Mud Pie’ brand of chip shop curry pie. They are through to judges’ houses or presenters’ visits. They arrive to have a nosey at what they do and deliver Julie’s impossible demands: substitute ingredients for cheaper alternatives without changing the taste of anything.
Mandira’s kitchen employs women of a certain age, “so a walk-in freezer comes in useful “, a world away from the show’s sterile Hilton hotel and its kitchen set for the conference room. And her food looks terrific. But I know Christian wins because I bought his pie from Aldi, which is quite a unique spoiler. And yes, it was delicious.
Women of Steel – BBC iPlayer
Off the back of the stunning success of England’s women’s football team, what’s happening with other women’s sports? Now is the time for them to take advantage of the spotlight.
Along the M62 from places like Leeds, Runcorn and Halifax come this story of passion, sacrifice and camaraderie.
This is Rugby League. Or, as one player puts it, “Smashing people: it’s great, isn’t it?”. The England squad are gearing up for 2022’s rugby league world cup. Team selection means 24 needed from a party of 30. Most importantly, all these women are amateurs, trying to make time for their 9-5 jobs, their family lives and their local clubs every week.
They all dream of being professional athletes, but the women’s game is clearly at a significant disadvantage due to conflicting loyalties and responsibilities.
Our stars are Amy, who is grateful to rugby for helping her with severe anxiety and postnatal depression, and Channey, who works full-time delivering fridges around the North East. Her attendance and attitude couldn’t be more sketchy, and it feels like family life conflicts with rugby.
Meanwhile, Paige talks about body image and how she was worried about becoming more ‘manly’ due to training in the gym. She uses her manicure and makeup for confidence on the field. Fran is 19 and loves her proud Grandma, who occasionally gets confused and cheers for the wrong team.
Head coach Craig seems fearsome, but the team describe him as a cuddly teddy bear. The team delivers an absolute thrashing to Wales and France in their friendly matches. Still, even with such impressive score lines, Craig constantly pushes for improvements, and it’s tense watching him tell the women if they’ve made the team.
You’ll know how they got on when you read this. The passion and talent are all there. All the game needs are exposure and investment.
High School – Amazon Freevee
High School is another good show suffering from a ridiculously boring name, heavy on the early 90s nostalgia with a terrific soundtrack. It’s a biographical account of the lives of indie pop star twin sisters Tegan and Sara, who, if you’re cool or Canadian, or both, you’ve probably heard of already.
Railey and Seazynn Gilliland play the twins, and we join them in teenage conflict and actual bodily violence. On day one at a new school, they’re in serious conflict with each other, upset and lashing out, but also desperate for companionship and lonely in their own way. Tegan can’t understand why Sara has gone off her and wants to spend every moment with Phoebe. They’re now lovers, and their whole dynamic has shifted in a way Tegan can’t understand, leaving her on the outside.
Having twins play twins is fantastic casting; their relationship looks natural because it is, and the show perfectly encapsulates high school enough to give me social anxiety all over again. Their small acts of love are framed beautifully, even when fighting Sara cuts gum out of Tegan’s hair, and when they unknowingly share their lunch break sitting so close but unaware of each other’s presence. Their lives may be changing, but sisterhood is forever.
If you like Hole, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, the Canadian equivalent of all the above and chains on your baggy jeans, this is the show for you. My favourite performance is Cobie Smulders as Mum Simone, who gives heart-breaking depth to a role often overlooked in a show about teens. I relate to her much more than the girls. I blame my age.
The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself – Netflix
This is a fantasy show by Joe Barton (who wrote Giri/Haji and The Lazarus Project) set firmly in reality about warring tribes of witches – the Blood witches and the Fairborn witches. Can you guess which ones are the bad guys?
Nathan (played by Jay Lycurgo) is the product of both: a Fairborn mother impregnated by evil witch Marcus Edge aka ‘The Wolf’. Nathan’s trick is killing influential Fairborn witches by ripping their hearts from their chests and eating them. His kind maternal grandmother adopted Nathan, and they live with his horrible half-sister Jessica, who blames him for their mother’s death and lists his dad’s misdeeds in heavy exposition. All witches come into their power at the age of 17, and until then, the witch council provides his monthly social services check-in, asking prying questions to check if he’s becoming evil.
Despite his brutal life, he’s a cocky teenager and catches the eye of a new girl Annalise who is also a witch. Her brother and cousin set out to provoke Nathan but of course, being quick to anger is a symptom of developing scary blood witch powers. What is a boy to do? Is Annalise being friendly, or does she want to get close to him for something more sinister? It isn’t straightforward.
Annalise’s family goad him into violence, but of course, he’s in trouble, suffering through a particularly grizzly and strange Crimewatch reconstruction put on for him by the Council. His abilities are developing, and he’s scared he’s becoming his father. Finally, the swagger has vanished, and he’s worried.
Nathan is betrayed and the victim of a violent ambush; as you’d imagine in a show where the bad guy eats hearts, this is grizzly with frequent brutal gore. His sister wants him dead and now has a team to do her bidding. It seems she has the whole Council on her side. The end of the episode sees Nathan on the run, filled with shame for the sins of the father.
This feels like a blend of Sex Education, Being Human, and Fort Salem. The realism is attractive and not too glossy; a good balance between real life, which we can empathise with quickly, and fancy spell casting. This is a gore-strewn romp with serious questions about identity, clan allegiance and who strictly defines good and evil. The first episode sets up Nathan’s trouble and the leading players well. I’m excited to see what happens next.